The political uniqueness of a Burmese communist named Than Soe Naing is examined in this article. He was one of the first communists in Myanmar to point out the true bureaucratic nature of Marxism-Leninism. This article analyses at the process through which a naive Marxist-Leninist communist evolved into a dialectical classical Marxist.
Than Soe Naing is a former member of Communist Party of Burma and a political analyst. He is a political dissident who has localised several democratic socialist books that challenge the bureaucracy in the traditional communism of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism. He has a significant impact on a number of young Trotskyist organisations as well as a fraction of self-claiming democratic socialists.
Than Soe Naing started his political activism since 1970s. He was forced to flee the cities by the military junta regarding his involvement in “U Thant funeral crisis” by the year 1974. Consequently, he decided to stay at the liberated area where the communist party of Burma controlled. In the Communist Party of Burma, Than Soe Naing served in the Central Bureau as the political commander of the 346th Battalion and in charge of joint operations. After leaving the Communist Party of Burma, he decided to become a political analyst and actively writes political analysis as well as books.
Than Soe Naing vs Communist Party of Burma
Than Soe Naing spent around 20 years of his time as a communist militia. He was forced to leave the communist party when the Communist party of Burma decided to dissolve 1989. The leadership of the Communist Party of Burma was overthrown by its own ethnic militia because of their inefficient bureaucratic leadership and Burmese chauvinism. After the coup, the rest of the exiled politburo of the Communist Party of Burma decided to dissolve the party by giving 500¥ to the rest of the members. Here, the Communist Party of Burma used Chinese Yuan instead of Burmese kyats because they were exiled to China and mainly served as the proxy party under the guidance of the Communist Party of China. In 21st century, there are some terms for such kind of political parties, “campist left” and “tankie”.
The politburo's decision was not well received by some of the communist party members who were forcibly told to leave the organisation with 500 yen in their hands. In order to avoid dissolving the entire party, Than Soe Naing and that group of party members decided to call for the dissolution of the politburo. Then, in an effort to elect new party leadership as well, he demanded a general assembly so that all party members could talk about the policies and tactics that would continue to affect the revolution. However, Bo Kyin Maung, the leader of the Communist Party of Burma didn’t accept the idea. Similarly, Than Soe Naing and his fellow party members were not interested to follow the instructions of the politburo. At the end, Than Soe Naing and his fraction decided to form the new party that will carry on the legacy of the Communist Party of Burma. As a result, all of them were forcefully arrested and handed over to the military junta. He was detained around 1990s. At the end of 1994, he returned back to the city.
Regarding Burma’s Cultural Revolution
The majority of communists in the CPB continue to support the brutal massacre that Than Tun's faction and his leadership decided to carry out in the name of upholding the revolution. Such kind of unapologetic acts can be found in the campist left fraction which represents the majority of the population in Burmese left. They defend the massacre CPB committed against its own members, politburos and the party sympathisers. Moreover, they will also defend Lin Biao and the gang of four in the name of Maoism.
However, Than Soe Naing indeed is a political dissident among the Burmese communists. He perceived the whole act as a mistake where the party failed to acknowledge its own members’ rights to have different opinions. Moreover, he correctly pointed out the effects of the CPB’s members who recently returned from China in the wake of cultural revolution. These CPC’s trained individuals were radicalised by the gang of four fraction.
Democratic Centralism or New Class Bureaucracy
Than Soe Naing wrote a book called “Beyond the Endless Sky (အနားသတ်မဲ့ မိုးကောင်ကင်)”. The book was mainly influenced by “The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System” and “The Unperfect Society: Beyond the New Class” of Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslav communist dissident who later identified himself as a democratic socialist. Since Than Soe Naing was influenced by Milovan Djilas, his arguments were really similar to what Milovan Djilas’s new class theory is suggesting. However, unlike Milovan Djilas, Than Soe Naing put all the blame solely to Stalin. Than Soe Naing failed to point out the similarities and differences between the democratic centralism of Stalinism and Trotskyism whereas Milovan Djilas didn’t see the differences between the democratic centralism of Stalinism and Trotskyism.
In this case, it's crucial to remember that Milovan Djilas favoured the role of Leon Trotsky as a dissident over that of Joseph Stalin as a brutal dictator. But one shouldn't equate showing acknowledgement with adhering to an ideology. However, Than Soe Naing was unable to distinguish it apart. While retaining his political viewpoints that are distinct from Trotskyism, Milovan Djilas acknowledges the contribution Leon Trotsky and his left opposition made to the struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy. However, Than Soe Naing drew a lot of political inspiration from the International Marxist Tendency, a conservative Trotskyist group with opposing views to Djilas'.
Than Soe Naing correctly pointed out the role of rationality when it comes to the ideology. According to a TV interview from MCN TV News, Than Soe Naing mentioned that people shouldn’t limit their rationality to an ideology. Apparently, doing so will result dogmatic people who think they have all the solutions for the complicated socio-economic issues. However, such kind of dogmatic people are common in Myanmar. Examples of these communists include Stalinists, Maoists, and the campist left, who will never hesitate to defend all the imperialist forces of the non-Western bureaucratic regimes while hypocritically posing as anti-imperialists.
His analysis on Burma Socialist Programme Party
Most of the communist parties all over the world thought of General Ne Win’s Burmese Way to Socialism as anti-imperialist, state-capitalist, and socialist. However, in Myanmar, since the CPB decided to fight against the Burma Socialist Programme Party and its military dictatorship, most of the Stalinists and Maoists in Burma are triggered when Ne Win’s Burmese Way to Socialism is regarded as Stalinist bureaucratic regimes.
However, Than Soe Naing exposed such kind of dogmatic and tribalistic political stance by stating the undeniable facts about the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). After the independence around 1950s, there were several political conflicts between reformist social democratic forces mainly represented by The Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) and the Maoist insurgencies represented mainly by the Communist Party of Burma. The AFPFL being the acting government of the time, the military had to follow its instruction. However, when the AFPFL was split into two fractions, the military seem to be worried about the leadership and situations about the country. Than Soe Naing correctly pointed out the involvement of CPB’s members regarding General Ne Win’s Burmese Way to Socialism. He explained how U Chit Hlaing, a lifelong communist who received his education in France, was instrumental in shaping the BSPP's ideology and its Burmese Way to Socialism. The military's main goal between 1959 and 1962 was to stage a coup without any ideological motivation. The military army, he noted with evidences, was, nonetheless, politically influenced by former communist party members, socialist party members, and communist sympathisers. Though the military used the term "socialism" at the time, according to Than Soe Naing, it never had any intention of establishing a socialist state. The military only used the names because, at the time, all governments purporting to be socialist, or communist were tyrannical and despotic. The military merely attempted to utilise these data effectively according to him. For Than Soe Naing, such kind of idea seems to be influenced by Milovan Djilas since he mentioned in his “The New Class”, ‘modern Communism is a modern despotism which cannot help but aspire towards totalitarianism’.
Federalism vs Democratic Centralism
The Communist Party of Burma was in favour of Stalinist interpretation or Maoist interpretation of national self-determinism. So, CPB thought of federalism as bourgeois and counter revolutionary. The CPB preferred Stalin’s “Marxism and the National Question” over Lenin’s “The National Question in Our Programme”. In light of this, they perceived other ethnic groups' efforts to secure federalism as regressive. However, as the military army serves as a common opponent for both ethnic armed groups and CPB, there was relatively little confrontation between the different entities regarding federalism.
Than Soe Naing dared to disagree, despite the fact that the majority of CPB members were unapologetic about how Stalin repressed the attempts of the Ukrainians and other ethnic states at self-determination. Than Soe Naing is arguably the first communist to speak out in Myanmar about how Stalin used the term "federalism" ironically while denigrating the diverse self-determination campaigns of Georgian and Ukrainian ethnic communities. He made the point that under Stalin's rule or Bolshevik party, no state had ever achieved federal or self-determination.
According to a television interview with MCN TV News, Than Soe Naing claimed that the authoritarian Marxist-Leninist strategy of seizing the properties of the rich people in order to drive out the bourgeois class had never been successful in the past. He asserted that such dogmatic strategies never produced economic prosperity for a country. He preferred Deng's pragmatic strategies over Mao's authoritarian ones.
Moreover, in the same interview, he mentioned that the future generations should focus on the economic prosperity of the nation over the narrow-minded approach of dogmatic ideologies. Theoretically, the way he constructed his idea regarding communism seems to be similar to the Marxism of Deng Xiaoping, or the Marxism of Karl Kautsky. In other words, after being red pilled by the despotic dogmatism of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, he appears to be returning to the classical Marxism or dialectical method of Menshevik's democratic socialism.
However, considering the past, such a judgement would appear reasonable. Myanmar has not yet transitioned to a capitalist mode of production in the 19th century. Since British India and the Imperial Japanese Empire colonised Myanmar, the country was still in a semi-feudal mode of production while it gained independence. There were a lot of communist revolutionaries who had the same conclusion even though they started their communist career as Marxist-Leninists.
However, Myanmar has evolved into a capitalist society in the twenty-first century with all the traits that may be found in a capitalist nation. The peasant class, which still exists as a social class with some potential for revolution, coexists with the working class, which is fully established. Thus, that would be wrong to conclude the same way for the contemporary Burma. Fighting for an equitable society where poverty is unheard of should be the goal of the working-class revolution in the twenty-first century. There should be not transitional programme of state capitalism where the oppressions and bureaucracy are more serve than bourgeois democracy or feudalism.
Classical Marxism approach apparent was correct for the 19th century. The failure and undialectical nature of Marxism-Leninism have been demonstrated by the collapse of various communist regimes in the 20th century, notably those of the Bolshevik Party, Mao's dictatorship, Tito's administration, and other communist regimes. Even if the Julius Martov’s method or Kautsky’s approach to dialectical classical Marxism was proven correct by the failure of Marxist-Leninist regimes, applying it to the twenty-first century would be too counter-revolutionary and undialectical.
In Myanmar, Than Soe Naing represents a fraction of leftists in Myanmar who think of Scandinavian countries as having democratic socialism. However, not all democratic socialists are hostile to Marxism-Leninism's campist left or red fascism. There are some opportunists who are too afraid to differ from the majority of campist on the left. However, Than Soe Naing is a dissident communist who dared to differ from the rest of the crowd by pointing out facts that the campist left couldn’t deny.
Djilas, M. (n.d.). The New Class.
Djilas, M. (n.d.). The Unperfect Society: Beyond the New Class.
Naing, T. S. (2021, Jan 6). ဧရာလွင်ရဲ့ ကံကြမ္မာ. Retrieved from Myanmar Now: https://www.myanmar-now.org/mm/news/5375
The Irrawaddy. (2015, June 5). ဗကပဟောင်း စာရေးဆရာ တဦးနှင့် တွေ့ဆုံခြင်း. Retrieved from The Irrawaddy: https://burma.irrawaddy.com/opinion/2015/06/05/75980.html