Socialist ideas were presented as the alternative in Malaysia's multi-racial society and to counter imperialist and capitalist ideology, and were very significant until 1970.
There were two dominant Left forces in this period, embodied by the Malaysian Communist Party (MCP) which emerged in the 1930s and the Socialist Front (Labour Party and People's Party) in 1950s and 1960s. The experiences, defeats and weaknesses of these forces, along with the undemocratic nature of Stalinism or Maoism internationally, during that period have been used by the right wing parties to attack the genuine ideas and programmes of socialism and regarded socialism is out of date and not practical in Malaysia.
Malaysian Communist Party (MCP)
In the early 20th century, there was a significant economic division between races with Chinese workers in mining, Indian workers in rubber and palm oil plantations and the majority Malays were peasants in rural villages. The British were able to pillage the enormous wealth and resources in Malaya using racial polarization. In the 1930s, mining and plantation workers who had been hugely affected by the massive economic turmoil of that period were looking to the MCP for ideas and guidance on how to conduct a struggle against capitalism and imperialism.
There were massive industrial strikes and demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of workers in this period led by the MCP in response to the employer's failure to lift workers' living standards and welfare. Later in the 1940s, the MCP had quite a significant influence in almost every major trade union comprising mainly Chinese and Indian workers.
Malaya Malay Nationalist Party (PKMM)
Meanwhile, the Malay poor peasants in rural areas were being exploited by Malay aristocrats and landlords. The PKMM (Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya-Malaya Malay Nationalist Party) which was a radical nationalist party launched by middle class Malays in 1945, was influenced by left ideas and the MCP, and had been at the forefront of organising the Malays against both British imperialism and the Malay aristocrats. In that period, they even had a youth section (API-Angkatan Pemuda Insaf), a women's section (Angkatan Wanita Sedar - AWAS) and a peasant union (Barisan Tani Se-Malaya - BATAS). At one stage, the poor peasantry organised by BATAS and with a certain influence of the MCP, put forward demands such as land rights for the poor. In that process, the MCP also managed to attract some Malays of the PKMM into its ranks.
The possibility to unite the workers, peasants and others regardless of race and religion for a common struggle was shown 60 years ago, on 20th October 1947, when Hartal (general strike) was declared by coalition of left organisations and political parties as well as trade unions to oppose the unjust nature of colonial constitution proposed to Malaya. This one day strike was participated by workers, peasants, fisherman, civil servants, petty trades and others, regardless race and religions and they managed to paralyse the nation and economy in which 99% of the business and administration activities were shut down. However the unclear leadership of this coalition and the confusions in the programs and demands retarded the continuation of such possibilities.
Role of party
All these developments showed that socialist ideas had been seen as an alternative to the capitalist or feudal system by workers and peasants regardless of race and religion to emancipate them from capitalist and landlord oppression.
Nevertheless the role of the party was crucial. What was needed was a mass party with a clear revolutionary leadership able to lead, guide and empower these disgruntled workers and peasants to establish this socialist system. For that it should be armed with clear perspectives, programme and tactics. The development of distortions of the ideas of socialism, in Russia under Stalin and in China under Mao in those periods, also had much influence on the development of a party like the MCP politically and organisationally.
The movements participated in by workers, peasants and the oppressed can and will develop, and general ideas of socialism can become popular and revolutions can take place; but concrete policies and steps are needed to both achieve and consolidate victory even in the midst of a revolutionary upheaval. Providing these concrete ideas is the key role of a party. This was vindicated by the role of Bolsheviks in the 1917 Russian Revolution under the favourable national and international objectives conditions, 90 years ago, that managed to establish a democratic government for the first time in human history.
Undemocratic nature of Stalinism and Maoism
However, the experience of Russian Revolution showed 'socialism in one country' is not possible and this was acknowledged by Russians revolutionary leaders, Lenin and Trotsky from the beginning. Trotsky in his theory of 'permanent revolution' stressed that in underdeveloped country with pre-capitalist tasks not yet completed or in neo-colonial country, the proletarian has to lead the poor and the peasant masses to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution (land reform, national questions etc) and then goes over to the socialist tasks of the revolution, both nationally and internationally. The Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky attempted this, but the civil war against capitalist elements in Russia and the inability of socialist in country like Germany to lead for successful revolution in their country which would had supported Russia economically derailed that process. This background in Russia in 1920s gave the room for opportunist elements with Stalin in the lead to grow.
Meanwhile, in China, Stalin in 1920s had collaborated with 'progressive bourgeoisie' Chiang Kai Shek and his Kuomintang party, and at the same time maintained the relationship with Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However when the CCP and its working class strength grew tremendously and entered into struggles which prevalent in the 1925-27 revolution, Chiang with his forces massacred thousands of communist and workers to subdue the revolution. This background forced the CCP to move into rural area in which the peasantry was the majority. Mao established the Red Army with the support of peasants and subsequently came into power in 1949 which was initially welcomed by the workers, peasants and the poor. His government from the start had emulated the top-down structure that was practiced in administrating the Red Army. Subsequently, these approaches undermined workers' democracy and the regime became bureaucratic.
Stalinism and Maoism are not socialism, as right wing politicians and historians like to claim. They have the feature of the state being governed by a bureaucratic layer who wants to safeguard its privileges and power by managing the planned economy and blocking genuine workers' democracy. These regimes had brutalised and maimed millions of workers, peasants and others in order to maintain the control of the bureaucrats. Although at great human cost, the planned economies had enormously benefited the people in these countries. Without workers' and peasants' democracy, however, the planned economy was unsustainable. This was behind what happened with the collapse of state ownership and planning in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989 and the shift back towards capitalism in China. The incapacity of the regimes in these countries to develop the economy and move towards full-blown socialism was rooted in Stalinism and Maoism and the inability of these bureaucracies to develop the planned, state-owned economy by allowing real workers' democracy.
MCP and Stalinism
The MCP was established in the 1930s. It adopted the top down party structure and organisational approach practiced by the Stalinist regimes. Lai Tek who was the secretary general of the MCP in that period, ended up using the nature of the party and his position in it to protect his privilege as well as acting as agent for both the British and the Japanese. In one notorious case in 1943 in Batu Caves, 29 senior members of the MCP and their bodyguards were killed by the Japanese military police on information given to them by Lai Tek. Later, because of the undemocratic nature of the party organisations, the MCP made big mistakes in its perspectives, tactics and programmes which caused them to lose the opportunity to take power when the Japanese were defeated in 1945. The influence of Maoism led them to take the path of guerrilla struggle in 1948 which isolated them from the mass movement of the working class that was concentrated in the urban areas.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Socialist Front - a coalition of Parti Buruh (Labour), supported mostly by urban populations and dominated by Chinese, and Parti Rakyat (People's Party) based on the Malay peasantry - had presented itself as an alternative to communal politics. They even won majorities in some local councils in Peninsular Malaysia and looked like emerging as a strong, non-communal alternative.
However, there were serious differences in the approach to communal issues between the two parties in the Front. The Parti Rakyat which was influenced by Sukarno, a populist leader in Indonesia, had been flexible towards some communal issues such as the position of the Malay Sultans in independent Malaya and the special privileges of the Malays. The Parti Buruh, which had social democratic roots, put forward the point of view of non-Malay communities. Because of that, right from the beginning the two parties showed little trust in each other and the link-up was basically a marriage of convenience. Their focus was more on the electoral campaign in which Parti Rakyat worked among the Malays and attracted their support and the Parti Buruh wooed the Chinese.
This situation was expressed in their annual report of 1958 as follows: "The Labour Party consisting mostly of Chinese members did not understand the Malayan situation as a whole but tended to look at problems as Chinese, non-Malay, problems…The Labour Party leaders had failed to stress the need of the non-Muslim proletariat to understand the Muslim peasantry…This was a dangerous trend as the Labour Party though non-communal in concept, was in danger of becoming more and more communal both in its membership and its understanding of the Malayan problems…The Rakyat attempted to enlarge itself on a non-communal basis. It began to take in Chinese non-Muslim members and in one or two cases there was a misunderstanding between the Labour Party and Rakyat because of this…certain leaders of our party who began to question whether our non-communal stand could stand up against the strong emotional appeal of communalism in the forthcoming struggle and some were therefore inclined towards a certain degree of communalism for the purpose of the electoral campaign".
These showed the influence of social democratic tendencies in the Socialist Front which concentrated merely on reformism and electoral gain but not revolutionary politics. Although in the same report they recognised the dangers of communalism, to counter this, the ideas proposed were to "change the belief that the Labour party is a Chinese Party by bringing onto its Executive a Malay whose task would be to re-educate the thinking of some our members" and "the laying down of a strong nationalist line in our policy". The former was merely a cosmetic change and the latter was in contradiction with the earliest party programmes that stated "for the establishment of a democratic socialist state of Malaya".
The differences between the Labour Party and Parti Rakyat became intense and the Socialist Front collapsed in 1965. Later it decided not to participate in the elections and the unclear positions and perspectives, along with the repression of the left by the state, further undermined their credibility.
Socialism or barbarism?
Both of these experiences show that the wrong policies and mistakes of the Left forces were used by the ruling class to crush them, but this does not mean that capitalism has triumphed over socialism.
After more than 50 years of independence, the lives of workers and ordinary people, who have been the backbone of Malaysia's development, have become harder and more insecure. Meanwhile, the middle class in urban areas which have grown in numbers and have being seen as enjoying the fruits of the industrial developments since the 1980s, are now being burdened with higher living cost.
Despite working with meagre wages, workers have also been burdened with the privatisation and corporatisation of basic utilities such as telecommunications, electricity, water, higher education, transport systems, healthcare and others under the neo-liberal policies. These things have created higher living costs especially in the urban areas. Nowadays, many people have to do more than one job to survive and to support their family. And there are also increasing cases of ordinary working people trapped into debts with 'along' (loan sharks) who imposed higher interest and will not hesitate to use all kind of intimidation and threats to get his money back.
Meanwhile, high-level corruption such as in the judiciary and police and even in the Anti-Corruption Agency, plus the mismanagement of funds in government departments and public services are common these days. At the same time, ordinary people are burdened with corruption and red tape when they try to speed up certain government services. Meanwhile professionals such as doctors and lawyers are becoming motivated by greed rather than providing a quality service to the public.
Meanwhile, the lives of people especially in urban area become insecure with the huge increase of crime rate. Nowadays, house-breaking, rape, abductions, murders, and other crimes have become common and part of Malaysian life. At the same time the chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart problems and blood pressure are increasing and recent survey indicated that almost 50% of Malaysian population at least will suffer with one of these chronic diseases.
Added to this, the democratic rights of students, opposition parties, media, trade unions and others are being controlled by the state with its laws and government apparatus. These are some of the symptoms of the rapacious nature of capitalist system.
Socialism or barbarism is the choice that is in front of us. Capitalism with its profit orientation under a market economy is incapable of building an equal and just society. It entails only exploitation, oppression, environmental degradation, hunger, poverty, war and other horrors, even though at present there are vast resources and technological advancement to avoid these horrors. Only through taking the major industries, banks, retail parks and land into public ownership can democratic planning of the use of human and natural resources be fully developed – locally, nationally and internationally. Socialism is the only system that can use the immense resources and technologies to fulfill the fundamental needs and to provide equality and justice in every aspect of life with the running of a planned economy through democratically elected committees to carry out workers' control and management of society.