Marxism and Leninism in Myanmar
A sympathiser sets out the history of ‘socialism’ in Myanmar.
Myanmar is a ‘Global South’ country with long borders shared with India and China. Before its independence, it was ruled by the colonial British as a province of British India. It was also known as Burma.
The earliest record of Marxism in Myanmar is 1923, long after the death of Marx and Engels. The Second International had already been replaced by the Third International. Most of the writers who represented orthodox Marxism were no longer alive or active. It was a time when most of the most talented scholars of Marxism had lost their influence and Marxism was being dictated by Stalin under the name ‘Marxism-Leninism’. Leon Trotsky also started the left opposition to the Bolshevik government in that year.
The very first localised literature of Marxism in Myanmar was Das Kapital in a misleading translation inspired by nationalism. Since then, ‘Bolsheviks’ and ‘communism’ were the kind of keywords that could be seen in some of the publicity released. In 1930, Dr Thein Maung brought back some left-wing books from London to Myanmar. Those were the first books the radical youths in Myanmar encountered about Western communism. They influenced Thakin Nu, who later became the Prime Minister of Burma, and Thakin Soe, who founded both the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and the Red Flag Communist Party; together they founded the ‘Nagani book club’ for distributing left-wing books and articles. Dagon Taya, later a renowned writer, was one of the chairmen of the Rangoon University Student Union and once wrote a slogan on a wall claiming ‘Long Live Soviet Myanmar’ while he was travelling in 1939.
In 1939, a new chapter was opened for ‘Communism’ (‘Marxism-Leninism’) in Myanmar. Aung San (the ‘father of the nation’), Thakin Soe, a handful of Chittagong radicals and some other leftists together founded the Communist Party of Burma. The CPB managed to link with the Third International as soon as it was founded because of the link between the Chittagonian Bengali founders such as H. N. Goshal and the Indian Communist Party. At that time in 1939, the Third International had already become a tool of Russian foreign policy, under the leadership of Stalin, and had successfully sabotaged strikes under the Popular Front government in France and the social struggles of the CNT-FAI in Spain. The CPB was thus also bound to adopt disastrous tactics, including a series of mistakes that even orthodox Bolshevik leaders like Lenin and Trotsky had described as ‘ultra-left’, ie, the CPB chose not to take part in elections, but instead to wage war against the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League which was the acting government at that time. Later, the CPB didn’t stop with Stalinism; it went further to Maoism which had rejected the class struggle and advocated the alliance of four nationalist classes. It ended up killing its own founders like H. N. Goshal in 1967 during the cultural revolution era.
One Party Rule
On 2 March 1962, a coup d’état took place which heralded the commencement of one-party rule in Myanmar and the army’s political supremacy. The military who attempted the coup called themselves the Union Revolutionary Council (URC) and introduced a programme called ‘The Burmese Way to Socialism’. The CPB denied the ‘socialist’ credentials of URC, however, the URC shared a lot of similar characteristics with Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Tito’s Yugoslavia. The first of these was one-party rule with strong state power and hostility towards opposition. As Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas mentioned in his The New Class, ‘modern Communism is a modern despotism which cannot help but aspire towards totalitarianism’. In terms of Marxism, such one-party totalitarianism has nothing to do with the dictatorship of the proletariat. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote once, ‘Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only of the members of one party, however numerous they may be, is no freedom at all’. Equating one-party totalitarianism with the dictatorship of the proletariat shows a lack of understanding of Marxism. Marx and Engels identified the act of ‘raising the proletariat to a ruling class’ as ‘the conquest of democracy’.
The second characteristic was the act of strengthening the state, which confirms the claim of Milovan Djilas which states: ‘there is no doubt that a national communist bureaucracy aspires to more complete authority for itself’. Thirdly, Ne Win, chairman of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) was anti-union just like Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Tito. The BSPP faced much opposition from every side including student unions, workers’ unions, political armed groups, and the government-in-exile.
The best example of this was the ‘7th July Student Uprising’ which was a series of marches, rallies, and protests against stricter campus regulations and the policies of General Ne Win’s BSPP regime. The BSPP responded to the uprising by violently attacking the students, shooting them with machine guns and using explosives to blow up the whole student union building in University of Yangon, resulting in the deaths of more than a hundred, and the arrest of more than 6,000 students. The BSPP accused the students of being counter-revolutionary and reactionary because they were protesting against the ‘socialist’ state in the BSPP’s view. After that incident, the BSPP attacked the very existence of the unions.
Furthermore, the BSPP implemented a programme like the ‘war-communism’ of Lenin’s time. The BSPP-led Socialist Economy Construction Committee introduced an economic policy aimed at nationalising all businesses across the board, similar to what Milovan Djilas had described the self-styled Communists (Marxist-Leninists) as doing. According to Djilas, the communists wanted to ban strikes because in their view the working class was already in power and owned the means of production via the state. So if there was a strike of workers or students, it meant workers were striking against themselves. Through this tyrannical self-delusion the BSPP, along with all the communist regimes who claimed to follow Marxism-Leninism, responded violently to workers’ strikes. A few international examples would include the Kronstadt rebellion against the Bolshevik government and the Georgian Mensheviks’ soviet rebellion against the Bolshevik government. The CPB argued that the BSPP didn’t represent the legacy of Marxism-Leninism, yet ironically the CPB claimed to follow Maoism while Mao Zedong himself was on excellent terms with Ne Win and his regime. The role of the CPB was ended by a series of battles with the military as well as internal coups resulting from their own inefficient revolutionary strategies and tactics.
After 1988, a lot of regimes had come and gone, and Myanmar was on the way back to globalisation from ‘socialism’. From 1988 to 2010, Myanmar was governed by purely repressive regimes with no ideological background. However, after the 2007 Saffron revolution, the military regime had to acknowledge the revolutionary potential of the Buddhist monks, students, workers, and the public. So they tried to create an ideological fantasy based on ultra-nationalism, Buddhist supremacy and crony capitalism. From 2010 to 2021 most of the public were under the illusion of living in a democratic nation while minority ethnic groups were being bombed and killed. The oligarchs managed to accumulate capital which was more than enough for three to five successive generations while working-class people struggled to make ends meet. That was when the public enjoyed the illusion of liberal democracy and was the least revolutionary period, until some students chose to protest with an agenda for educational reforms in 2014. During that decade, the military had successfully radicalised the majority of the Buddhist monks with their self-serving ultra-nationalism and Buddhist supremacy. As Myanmar has a unique culture of monks being important (too important) when it comes to social values, a fraction of the working class also chose to give support to the successors of the military regime, bolstered by irrational fear of minority groups and other religions. Such a political agenda recalls Daniel De Leon’s remark that ‘the capitalist class is interested in keeping the working men divided among themselves’.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) was founded by ex-communists, ex-military officers and left-leaning social democrats in 1988. Aung San Suu Kyi, the ‘democracy idol’ of Myanmar, forged a de facto alliance with the military to attain governmental status. Since then, not only did the NLD not achieve its goal of kicking the military out of politics but they also failed to protect minority ethnic groups like the Rohingya from genocide. Under the leadership of ‘the lady’ Suu Kyi, the NLD changed its political ideology from social democracy to liberalism. This was not apparent at first, but as soon as they were elected as an acting government, they failed to implement all the social democratic policies. The NLD lost their social democratic connections with the interests of the working class and with the national self-determinism of ethnic groups. Such reactionary behaviour resulted in some far-left and centre-left youths losing their trust in the NLD, and searching for a third alternative either in some social democratic reformist party or a revolutionary socialist party.
Another military coup
In February 2021, the military decided to stage another coup to restore their former golden days and to protect family members who had become oligarchs and cronies. The public at first was hesitant to react with strikes and protests. But the coup sparked enormous protests and dissent which were brutally suppressed by the military, with about 1,500 people dead, either shot in the streets, tortured and murdered in detention, or just disappeared. Even though the military managed to seize power and arrest some influential political leaders like Suu Kyi and Mya Aye, some of the NLD members escaped and formed a National Unity Government (NUG) in exile, in alliance with some ethnic leaders and other small political groups taking the role of consultative council. Even today, the NUG fails to grasp the opportunity to radicalise the public, even for reformist social democratic values. The NUG still acts like a parallel government. Yet third-party alternatives such as the Maoist CPB, Trotskyist organisations and social democratic reformists also failed to radicalise the public for a socialist revolution.
Theo Maung, who describes himself as a libertarian socialist and one of the founders of the Burmese Atheists Association, said that he was expecting a more progressive and secular society from the revolt against the coup. He was confident that people were turning away from authoritarianism and racial and religious discrimination as a result of their struggles against the junta. He pointed out that the CPB managed to recover again after the coup but that the new generation of leftists like him didn’t accept the authoritarian communists. He also said that if there was to be another communist party in Myanmar, he expected a more libertarian-leaning one with little influence from Marxism-Leninism and Maoism. Yoe Thit Aung, an anarchist, also had a view on the revolution: ‘I personally don’t see the revolution as a class struggle but rather a transformation of crony capitalism into corporate capitalism. Traditionally the NLD is a populist and conservative party. NUG is trying their best for more progressive reforms, but they will never go for radical ends’. He thinks that the old bourgeois crony class will be useful as a national bourgeois class in the post-revolutionary period.
To sum up, Myanmar has a lot of experience of Marxism-Leninism (so-called communism) and military dictatorships. It’s unfortunate that Myanmar was never influenced by the internationalist and revolutionary socialism (Marxist) tradition of Georgi Plekhanov, Julius Martov, Rosa Luxemburg and others, which represents the Marxism of Marx and Engels in seeking the democratic emancipation of the working class.
HEIN HTET KYAW