How to achieve left unity

By Arveent Kathirtchelvan

I recently participated in a discussion about left unity with a few acquaintances over discord which was quite stimulating. However, I didn’t utilise the time given to properly explain my stance on the matter through all perspectives. I shall use this article to do so. From the outset, I hold that left unity is possible. Ironically, this sentiment was largely accepted by the end of the discussion and we had actually spent most of our time discussing what it would take for left unity to be possible instead.

To tackle this issue, we must first understand what it is that is in the way of left unity. To me, there are 3 main issues: theoretical disagreements, compromising due to practicality and faults in personalities. We shall explore the first of these three in this article.

Theoretical Disagreements

It is abundantly evident that leftists come in many different types. From social democrats to anarchists to Marxist-Leninists, leftists disagree on many issues that has left them factious. For example, anarchists want the abolition of the state whereas Marxist-Leninists do not (at least, not initially). Social democrats usually want to reform the political and economic system by working within the existing ones through expanding elements such as taxation whereas Marxist-Leninists and anarchists would want a completely different system than the present. There are, of course, many more disagreements like these that keep the left apart.

There is a tendency for each camp on the left to see the other as enemies, sometimes even worse enemies than liberals or conservatives, leading to disruptive fractiousness. For example, in India, there’s a Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist), multiple Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)s and a Communist Party of India (Maoist), amongst others. This is unsustainable as the membership numbers of leftist parties are usually small and being broken up into even smaller fractions will only further weaken the left. A coalition of the left must be attained if there is any hope of a leftist electoral victory.

How then do we reconcile the different ideological stances leftists hold? An interesting point brought up in the discussion was that the left can only unite against a common enemy and when the enemy is gone or victory is about to be achieved, the different ideological beliefs held by leftists will tear the coalition apart. Whilst I agree that a coalition built around defeating a common enemy only is doomed to fail after that enemy is defeated (as shown by Pakatan Harapan, amongst others), a leftist coalition (or organisation around a party) should not be built this way.

Rather, the unifying force should be based around a program agreed to by different leftists that then becomes the base of a plan moving forward. Firstly, we must anchor our political struggle on uplifting the underclass. The proletarian struggle must be given primacy in this unifying plan as political differences may be bridged through contextualising them with what is desired and needed by the masses. This must also necessarily include the point of defeating the status quo (returning power to the people) rather than projecting the status quo’s defeat as an end in and of itself.

Then we must be aware of that political victory and the development of socialism is highly affected by local material conditions. This means, many steps that we may want to take as leftists may not be able to be done due to certain vulnerabilities we may or may not be able to see right now.

For example, can we raise taxes on the rich immediately after taking over power? I don’t think this is so straight-forward. When the economy is largely held by private companies and multi-national corporations, the threat of capital flight is real and ever-present. We must remember that the imperialist, capitalist global structures are not going to allow the tools of their demise flourish. When business as usual gets too difficult, it is natural that these groups will leverage on their market share to steer towards a better deal for themselves. If they threaten to move away from Malaysia, for example, in search for better business environments, a socialist government will either be vilified as the destroyers of the economy or will have to comply with big businesses and be called revisionist. We must also remember that underhanded tactics such as racial and religious extremism can and will be used by right-wing reactionaries to take back power.

This is why a practical approach that compromises certain ideals at certain times is needed. For me, we must accept that electoralism is the only means to achieve political victory when building a militia which can achieve revolutionary victory without too much destruction is no longer possible in these times of sophisticated military machinery. However, the kind of electoralism needs to be radically different from the current one of mainstream parties, as it is mostly posturing and alienating towards the masses.

Hence, we must accept that the movement towards political victory must include as many of the masses as possible. This means pooling resources between different leftist groups must be geared first towards organising as many people as possible towards achieving firstly their goals and then towards the goals of others through political means. As an example, right now, only around 6% of the Malaysian workforce is unionised, with a certain percentage of this organised within the Malaysian Trade Unions Congress (MTUC). These numbers must radically increase first to develop the basis from which a leftist electoral victory can be obtained, which cannot happen on its own but needs a consolidated, targeted approach by leftist activists to come into fruition.

After this, we must accept that state mechanisms should not be dismantled quickly. As much as we would like to think different groups coming together and functioning as one is possible, like anarchists envision, in reality the organisation, management of communications and difficulties in coordination can become quite troublesome without some sort of unifying umbrella. Malaysia luckily has extensive state organisations that can be used directly to change the structure of governance and management of the economy.

Government-linked companies (GLCs), for example, can be used to influence the economy in such a way to deliver material benefits directly to the rakyat. I have been working on a theory called Proactive Reindustrialisation that calls for the realignment of GLCs to pool their profits and capital assets to invest in creating more industries and jobs for Malaysians. This is to minimise directly the unemployment and underemployment of Malaysians whilst also reducing the market capitalisation of private businesses.

The latter can then allow us to increase minimum wage, strengthen workers’ benefits and tax the rich whilst protecting the economy from capital flight that can lead from these. This aggressive investment strategy can also lead to a reduction in dependence on imports, thus reduce the vulnerabilities therein. However, can we dissociate ourselves from the global economy, trade and supply chain? As a trade-driven economy, it is a near impossibility to do so at least not immediately.

This is not to say that the state needs to be kept alive in its current iteration ad infinitum. It must be reformed to increase direct participation of the people. Hence, alongside greater government control of the economy that leads to better working conditions, structures such as local councils should be made more democratic, for example, by introducing local council elections. The participation of people within politics can be increased through establishing more and more government positions as independent councils managing either local areas or certain interests such as Orang Asli/Asal, single mothers and university students.

However, this process of devolution of power from the centralised government down to the people directly, though a necessary process, will have to take place in stages over many years. This is to allow for combating the right-wing and dismantling their power structures, convincing more of the masses on the effectiveness of self-governance, training government staff on the new method of governance relying on decisions on new councils, training the masses on their new roles, spreading leftist education to properly develop cadres who will combat right-wing reactionaries and coming up with the details of how these structures will function, like salary-schemes and benefits.

All of this takes a considerable amount of time, all the while local bourgeoise, fascists, capital-owners and careerist politicians will work tirelessly to bring down the revolution. They will have with them excellent means for doing so, much more money than leftists, connections with foreign powers and unseen structures that exist now to keep themselves in power. Any small crack or chink in the armour of a leftist government will be capitalised on to separate the masses from the government. This may even devolve into outright fascism, as long as political and economic power are returned to their masters.

The structure of a revolution, then, especially in a Malaysian context, would necessarily include the steps of:

  1. Organising the masses
  2. Winning in elections
  3. Slowly reforming the economy and laws to create the conditions necessary for more far-reaching steps to be taken
  4. Sustaining power through good governance, educating the people and combating the right-wing
  5. In stages, creating more governance structures to include more and more people as steps towards direct democracy

At times, any of these steps can seem revisionist, reactionary, authoritarian, repressive, state capitalist and liberal. That’s unfortunately how revolutions can work in these days of imperialist dominance. It is with this in mind that we leftists should plan our coalition. All mechanisms that can be used to keep power with a leftist government should be used to properly crush the right-wing as a means to ensure power can be returned to the people eventually. Revolutions are not easy or pretty, but necessary. Ideological differences should be understood and ironed out in a well-formed plan that is stuck to with the spirit of democratic centralism. This will then unite the left ideologically and practically carry out the revolution when it does take power.

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