When Free YOUTH released its ‘Restart Thailand’ logo in the manner of the Communist hammer and sickle, it stoked widespread political discussion. Many – both supporters and critics alike – argued it was merely provocative.
“Just a meme!” they declared, designed to trigger a virulently anti-Communist state.
But with the recent release of Free YOUTH’s statement, it is beyond doubt that Free YOUTH has chosen to brand its movement a Communist one.
“‘Communism’ is medicine that will neutralize the atrocities of Capitalism,” they write. Their definition of Communism is “an ideology that aims to make people equal,” yet one that is “not equal to dictatorship.”
Capitalism, they argue, has seen similar if not worse failures in practice – the excesses of inequality in Thailand being a prime example. Like Flat Earthers, they claim, critics of Free YOUTH’s new Communist approach have thus far limited their imagination of ‘Communism’ to the failures of China or North Korea, but it is time to imagine the possibility of a new Communism.
Evocatively but vaguely, they write: “Another world is possible.”
Associate Professor Soravis Jayanama has written a powerful defense of Free YOUTH’s ideology, positioning it against the failures of a liberal mindset that embraces what is in place of what could be. “Why is it so difficult to accept that another communism is possible in the 21st century?” he asks. “Why is democracy seen as open to endless reinvention or revision but not communism?”
Shouldn’t another world be possible?
Indeed, another world is possible. So, another world must be articulated. The key failure of Free YOUTH’s embrace of Marxism is not that it scares ‘liberals’ away with a class-based analysis, as Professor Jayanama implies.
Rather, it fails because it doesn’t articulate how a Marxist analysis might be adapted and empowered by the specificity of the Thai context. It fails to articulate what this reinvention of Communism is that is possible in the 21st century, and more importantly, why it is so necessary to resolve specific class tensions in Thailand.
Class consciousness has never worked out in practice as it has in theory. In a critique of the initial RT logo, academic Edoardo Siani argued that the labeling of the movement as ‘Communist’ was “gratuitous” given that the current movement is heterogeneous, and more importantly not an exclusively or even primarily working-class movement.
Moreover, as the comments on Siani’s viral post pointed out, rural or even ‘working class’ Thais fail to identify with notions of class solidarity.
This was exhibited the very next day. Free YOUTH used an image of the current Grab Taxi protests to demonstrate labor solidarity, declaring “Grab Labor Awakens!”
In response, the Grab movement’s Facebook page wrote: “What is this…?” Instead, the Grab movement’s Facebook administrators declared that the movement was apolitical, and that they only wanted to raise one (middle) finger to the company. There was no intent to identify themselves as part of the collective the students wanted to term ‘labor’, nor any interest in allying themselves against any corporation other than the specific one they were contracted to work for. While they may come to take on a shared identity through further collective organizing, they still saw themselves as individual, independent contractors and entrepreneurs.
Similarly, Andrew Walker argues that rural villagers and farmers see themselves as entrepreneurs and contractors. In place of James Scott’s Marxist analysis of peasant rebellion and evasion of the state, Walker makes the case for a new middle-income class of peasant farmers who instead proactively seek out productive relationships with sources of state power, and who become agents of the state at the local level. It is difficult, then, to sweep such heterogeneous aspirations under the banner of “labor solidarity.”
This is not to say that such notions of class consciousness could never change – rather, that these particularities are important, and need to be accounted for in any theorizing on class politics.
Why Communism Limits More Than It Emancipates
Ultimately, it is not only the Thai case that presents complexities for class-based Marxist analysis.
What Mao Tse Tung, Che Guevara and Regis Debray realized was that Marxist Communism was not made for the Third World. Europe was the primary source of Marx’s historical analysis, but also an archetype for the future, intended to “[create] a world after its own image.”
For Marx, the Asiatic states were mired in pre-capitalist lethargy, and needed to progress to the capitalist mode of production.
For ‘Marxism’ to truly be empowering, it must be grounded in the lived experiences of the societies it intends to empower.
It took thinkers like Samir Amin to situate unequal exchange within the specific class relations of agrarian societies, or Fanon to situate the class analysis within – and sometimes outside of – the analysis of race in the colonial context. Each grounded their analysis in the lived experiences of people within those societies.
So too, does Bernie Sanders, who articulates a particular brand of socialism deeply grounded in the failures of American capitalism, centered around a stagnant minimum wage and demands for universal healthcare. In America, the conversation moved leftward because that was where the concerns of peoples’ lived experiences were – not because any organization declared that was where the conversation needed to be.
To use an example Professor Jayanama himself highlights, 20th century de-colonizers were largely Marxist. However, they were careful to distinguish their movement Communism. George Padmore, one of the leaders of the Pan-African movement that swept the African continent, emphasized that Pan-Africanism was independent of official Communism even as it recognized the Marxist interpretation of history. Instead, they referenced human rights, self-determination and democratic socialism along with Marxism, linking such references distinctly to the 19th century African colonial context. Its central preoccupation was with New world slavery and its legacies, and within this context, Pan-Africanism was able to remake and reinvent inherited ideals and principles.
It would be misleading to limit the horizon of possible revolutions to Communism, especially since most who we now call ‘Marxists’ did not. Rather, people’s lived experiences demand ideological flexibility and revision – practical answers, like how to pay for their medical bills or what retribution slavery demands of colonial powers, rather than abstract ideological gestures.
As Rap Brown, student leader for the Black Panther Party, acknowledged in 1969, “We cannot limit ourselves to just one concept or ideology that was relevant in some other revolution… ‘Revolution cannot be imported or exported.’ Certain changes have made even the most advanced ideologies obsolete.”
Paths to Another Future
Free YOUTH’s mistake is in putting theoretical concerns before practical ones. What Free YOUTH needs to do is recognize the needs of the current historical moment and build their revolution around that.
Sometimes, abstract symbolism is not the best way to do that. Rather, supporters – and critics – need an articulation of the problems Free YOUTH hopes to solve based on Thai people’s lived experiences, and how. And if the accumulation of those answers really does build up to a centralized state under Communist rule, then so be it.
But before this other world is declared possible, people must be brought along. People must know why ‘another world’ must look the way Free YOUTH claims it does. What theoretical and practical revisions Marx’s communist ideology must undergo, based on Thailand’s history and the political triad of Monarchy – Military – Oligarchy. Why Marxism still matters in Thailand, when it has been far from the main source of inspiration for the most emancipatory, revolutionary political movements of the 20th and 21st century.
Without any such explanation, this new brand of ‘communism’ will feel like a dictated future for the masses. Another dictatorship of the elite is possible, too.