From Marx to the Market: On the Road in Cambodia and Thailand


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The view from the world’s second-tallest building, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, is a bit of an anti-climax – once you get near the top there’s not much to see that can compare with the skyscraper itself. You can’t help being impressed, though, at the ambition behind the Towers. In case visitors over-look what the building is meant to symbolise, there’s a twenty-minute propaganda film extolling the virtues of Petronas, Malaysia’s national oil company, who are now active in over thirty countries.

There’s also a visual chart to inform us that of the ten highest buildings humans have managed to construct, eight are now to be found in East Asia (Taipei pipped KL for the number one spot a few years ago – Chicago and New York are the only western cities still in the running).You couldn’t find a better illustration of the shift in the balance of economic power towards the Far East. The industrialists of Europe and North America used to have a clear run at the skies, dazzling the world with the Eifel Tower, the Empire State Building and other famous landmarks. The rising capitalist powers of Asia obviously feel it’s their chance now to inspire a little awe. The recent Olympic Games should have driven home the message to anyone who hasn’t been paying attention so far.

Japan has been a major industrial power for half a century, of course, and other regional players like Singapore and South Korea started bridging the gap between Third World and First a long time ago. But it’s the explosive growth of the Chinese economy which is really driving East Asia’s bid to challenge two centuries of western dominance over the global economy. When the dust of the ‘war on terror’ has begun to settle, historians may see the opening years of this century as the beginning of a contest between Western and Eastern capitalism that proved to be of far greater importance than the much-hyped crusades launched by Bush and Cheney.

From Marx to the Market

Not so long ago, there seemed to be a very different light shining from the East. It’s barely thirty years since the final defeat of the South Vietnamese regime set the seal on the most humiliating defeat the USA has suffered since appointing itself as the world’s policeman after 1945. The victory of the Vietnamese Communists was one by-product of a curious fact: the Communist International, founded by the Bolsheviks with the primary goal of spreading revolution in Western Europe, had its greatest impact in East Asia. Nobody would have found that more surprising than the Bolsheviks themselves.

Communist parties were able to take power under their own steam in China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The Korean Communists had the benefit of support from the Red Army but still had a strong domestic base when they took over the north of their country. There were also long-running Communist insurgencies in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, while Indonesia was once home to the largest non-ruling Communist party in the world.

A quick glance at the regional scene will tell you that the challenge once posed by Asian Communism to the capitalist order has been almost entirely eclipsed. The Indonesia CP was smashed by Suharto’s bloody coup in the 1960s, while the Communist guerrillas in Thailand and Malaysia have long since been defeated. The Filipino CPP/NPA survives, but is a much diminished force. The turnaround is most striking, though, in the states where Communist parties or their descendents are still in power.

China’s great leap forward has grounded itself on the embrace of private enterprise (although not, it should be said, the dogma of the Washington Consensus). Vietnam and – in its own rather sleepy fashion – Laos have followed the Chinese model of illiberal capitalism with growing enthusiasm. Vietnam’s decision to join the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which it once scorned as a club for imperialist lackeys, sums up the readiness of its leaders to embrace the capitalist world in the post-Soviet era. North Korea may remain stubbornly independent, but the defiant stand of its gruesome regime is hardly likely to inspire anyone. The scale of this retreat is perhaps best illustrated by a couple of recent political events in the region.

On the Road in Cambodia and Thailand

The week I spent in Cambodia at the end of July saw intense agitation in advance of national elections that returned the ex-Communist Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to office with a big majority. If posters were anything to go by, the CPP’s victory was no surprise – I’d say exhortations to support the ruling party outnumbered its rivals by a factor of at least five to one, especially in rural areas.

Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen, the dominant figure of the post-Khmer Rouge era, has always been fairly pragmatic – after the 1975-78 genocide, the government installed by the Vietnamese army couldn’t afford to follow strict ideological prescriptions as it rebuilt the country from scratch. But since the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops and the installation of a rough-and-ready democracy (one that leaves the CPP in control of most state institutions, including the broadcast media), Hun Sen’s government has gone even further than Hanoi in its adherence to World Bank / IMF recipes. The last couple of years have seen massive purchases of Cambodian land by foreign developers who would never be allowed to buy land outright in Vietnam (or impeccably capitalist Thailand for that matter).

According to well-documented reports, the CPP leadership and their families have personally benefited from the great property bonanza. One Hong Kong-based developer was happy to inform journalists that after building a set of luxury condos in Phnom Penh that cost $750,000 each, his first customers were drawn from the CPP elite. When I asked our tuk-tuk driver in the Cambodian capital how he was going to vote on Sunday, he eagerly whipped out a leaflet from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (named after none other than Sam Rainsy, a veteran human rights activist). It showed poor farmers being driven off their land by riot police and demonstrating monks on the receiving end of a baton charge to quell anti-government protests. He hoped that the Sam Rainsy Party could unseat Hun Sen, but come Election Day the CPP’s main challenger was unable even to maintain its previous levels of support – prompting accusations of fraud in Phnom Penh, the opposition stronghold.

The CPP’s victory was predictable, considering a number of factors – its control over TV and radio (by far the most important media considering the levels of illiteracy in Cambodia), its superior organisation around the country, and its association with the economic growth of recent years as tourism has become a major foreign-currency earner. Hun Sen was probably helped by a border confrontation with Thailand on the eve of the election – newspapers quoted a few voters expressing their confidence that he was the right man to face down the Thai military and show them Cambodia was no pushover.

Left-wingers outside the country should have no illusions about the Cambodian People’s Party – despite its name, it seems to have abandoned any progressive leanings, in the broadest possible sense of that term. It’s a sad ending for the career of Hun Sen, who started out as a mid-level Khmer Rouge cadre in his twenties before taking up arms against the madness of that regime and returning to Phnom Penh with the Vietnamese force that ended the genocide. The first prosecutions of the surviving Khmer Rouge leadership got started shortly after we left Cambodia – after surviving such extraordinary horrors, the Khmer people deserve something less brutal and banal than a corrupt government using its control over the state to line the pockets of construction capitalists. There’s no need to travel half-way across the world to see that sort of thing.


You may have heard about the recent political clashes in Thailand – perhaps because of the extraordinary fact that the prime minister, having endured weeks of violent demonstrations, was ordered to resign for hosting a cookery programme. The ruling party, led by conservative allies of former PM and former Man City owner Thaksin Shinawatra, is hardly going to endear itself to anyone even slightly to the left of centre.

But the leaders of the anti-government protests are not what you’d call progressive – according to one article I read in the Bangkok Post, the ‘People’s Alliance for Democracy’ (PAD) has presented its ideas for constitutional reform and suggested that a minority of seats in the national parliament be elected, the rest being nominated by worthy notables. The PAD leadership was quite open in calling for the Thai military to intervene and overthrow the government.

If there had been a coup, there’s a good chance that many of the tourists in the country wouldn’t have noticed. I was fortunate to leave Bangkok shortly before the trouble flared up and couldn’t detect the slightest echo of what was happening there in the southern islands. Apart, that is, from a sign on the pier at Ko Tao which offered a tempting reward for the capture of the fugitive billionaire: ‘Any farang catch Thaksin, Mr J give you 3 chocolate bar and 1 kiss!’ The same poster claimed that Thaksin would find himself re-incarnated as a penguin, which struck me as a tolerable enough fate.

As with the Cambodian elections, what was missing from the debates was a clash between alternative economic models – or to use the Marxist jargon once popular in the region, any sense that there were class issues at stake. When Che Guevara wanted to promote revolution in Latin America, he spoke of creating ‘one, two, many Vietnams’. Now almost every election and major political crisis in Guevara’s home region has publications like the Economist fretting about the possible consequences, but political elites in South-East Asia have hunkered down around a tight consensus that can only leave western capital purring.

Roots of the Failure

One explanation of this is to say, very simply, that capitalism worked and Communism failed. Just look at the economic prosperity of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore by comparison with their neighbours Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and you have your answer. This is far too glib if you ask me, as it leaves out of account the impact of the Thirty Years’ War against French and US imperialism that left the countries of Indo-China completely devastated.

To give Laos as an example – the US air force dropped over two million tons of explosives on the country (without ever publically admitting that it was bombing Laos). There are more unexploded bombs in Laos than anywhere else in the world – over ten thousand people have died since the war ended as a result of the US bombing campaign. In Vietnam, children are still being born with grave abnormalities because of the chemical weapons used by American forces. Moreover, the secret bombing campaign launched by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger paved the way for the Khmer Rouge to seize power in Cambodia and launch their deranged programme of extermination. Relentless bombardment by the most technologically advanced power in the world would present a drastic obstacle to economic development in any country, no matter what its social system was.

This is not to say that the social system established in Vietnam and Laos after Communist victory was basically sound and would have gone from strength to strength if Washington had stayed out of the region. Reflecting earlier this year on the 40th anniversary of the Tet Offensive and his own time in Vietnam during the war, Jean-Michel Krivine recalled the bitter aftermath of liberation:

“After having victoriously concluded its exemplary struggle, the PCV [Communist Party of Vietnam] very quickly set itself to building a society in every way comparable to those of its counterparts of “really existing socialism”, with its single party, its bureaucrats at every level, its “special” stores and hospitals, its hundreds of thousands of political prisoners “to be re-educated”, its omnipresent political police. The NLF and the Alliance of Democratic Forces, which had insisted for years on their willingness to open out to the “third force” [Vietnamese who were neither for the Americans nor the Communists] and their desire to establish a multi-party democratic regime, found themselves put on the sidelines. Practically all the key positions were occupied by “Northerners” or by people who only owed their power to the confidence that they inspired in the “deciders” from the North and not to the local population.”

The Communist parties which led the struggle against imperialism and capitalism in the region were committed from the start to an authoritarian model. There are a few reasons why this proved to be the case. As noted earlier, the Communist International intended its parties to have their greatest impact in the industrial societies of Western Europe, countries with large populations of urban workers and long traditions of working-class organisation and struggle.

In East Asia, however, the vast majority of the population was made up of poor, illiterate peasants. The peasant population was more fragmented, geographically and socially, than the urban working class in more developed societies, and thus found it harder to impose itself on the Communists as an active partner rather than a passive support base. While the Communist parties relied on the peasantry for mass support, their leading bodies were dominated by figures from the traditional educated elites.

The demands of a long military struggle further narrowed the chances of a democratic socialist model emerging from the region. This was combined with the overwhelming influence of Soviet-style Communism in countries which generally lacked a home-grown socialist tradition before 1917. Vietnam was one of the few places in the world where a Trotskyist party with real political weight was able to establish itself – but Ho Chi Minh’s followers diverted some of their energy from the struggle against French colonialism to crush the anti-Stalinist Left with ruthless efficiency[1]. The Vietnamese leadership then bowed to the dictates of political fashion after 1989, followed in quick step by their junior partners in Laos and Cambodia. As Jean-Michel Krivine puts it, “the cult of the dollar has replaced that of Stalin, but political power is still firmly in the hands of the cadres of the PCV.

There’s an obvious lesson to be drawn about the perils of authoritarian short-cuts on the road to social change. The tragedy of what happened in Vietnam is much greater than the experience of Stalinism in East Germany or Poland. In the latter countries, Communism was imposed from the outside by the Red Army and the NKVD. The ugly, oppressive nature of the regimes in question was inevitable, given their lack of popular legitimacy and reliance on a foreign power. But the Vietnamese system was the product of a genuine, popular revolution, second to none for the heroism and self-sacrifice of those who fought for it.

The Second Round?

If anyone still believed in the fatalistic version of Marxism that used to be so popular, we’d now be saying that East Asia is ripe for socialist revolution. The last twenty years or so have produced what was lacking when Communism first put down roots in the region – a classic industrial proletariat of the sort Marx and Engels first identified in nineteenth-century Britain. There’s no reason, however, to feel sure that politics will follow economics without any bumps on the road.

In China, working-class organisation is starting virtually from scratch, and faces a police dictatorship determined to prevent any independent labour movement from developing. It would be foolish to predict any speedy progress under those conditions. Nor does any left-wing revival seem likely in the states of Indo-China – for the time being anyway. There are some countries, though, where left-wing and labour organisation has endured or revived in recent years – South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines are prime examples.

With the role of East Asia in the global economy set to grow and grow, we had better hope that left-wing movements in the region can overcome both the burden of history and present-day obstacles. If they manage it, the impact will be felt as widely as the struggle of the NLF in Vietnam four decades ago.

[1] A sinister postscript to this story has appeared in the Philippines over the past decade, where the armed wing  of the Communist Party of the Philippines has started hunting down and murdering ‘counter-revolutionaries’ – in other words, any left-wing activist who do not accept the leadership of the CPP. This purge – almost unique for being launched before the seizure of power – initially targeted former members of the CPP, but has now been broadened to include the Filipino Left as a whole, with predictably destructive and demoralising consequences for militants who already have to face government repression. See the report on this grim affair by French socialist Pierre Rousset.


2 Responses

  1. Ed Walsh

    November 1, 2008 10:10 pm

    I’m not sure what “Obama’s brand of Marxism” might be – I take the old-fashioned view that for somebody to be dubbed a Marxist, they must have at least a passing regard for the political ideas of Karl Marx. If I thought that Barack Obama wanted to overthrow the class power of the bourgeoisie by organising a revolutionary workers’ movement to smash the capitalist state and replace it with workers’ democracy … well I don’t really see the need to finish the sentence.