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Guerilla Communism in Malaya: Its Social and Political Meaning

LUCIAN W. PYE wrote this book while he was with the Center of International Studies at Princeton University. He is now Assistant Professor of Political Science and a staff member of the Center for International Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The author did his field work in the Federation of Malaya from September 1952 to January 1953, interviewing former Malayan Communists.

Princeton University Press (Reprint, 2015)
386 pages


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Guerilla Communism in Malaya: Its Social and Political Meaning is a case study of “People’s Liberation” Communism, the type of Communism that is common to the less industrial areas of the world, and of Asia in particular. This is the still dynamic and revolutionary form of Communism that now constitutes a most serious problem for political freedom. As is the nature of a case study, our approach will be intensive and limited: we will seek primarily to understand this form of Communism according to the meaning that it held for Malayan Chinese who joined one such party, the Malayan Communist Party.

One of the most profound effects of the Second World War was a dramatic alteration of the traditional relationships between the West and Asia. In the countries of Asia, the war not only greatly accelerated the tempo of political and social change; it gave to these developments a new direction and a new character. The more gradual process of cultural change was pushed aside as whole societies were cast willy-nilly into new political prominence. For the West, the war brought about a sharp decline in its capacity to participate directly in the political life of Asian societies. An end came to the variety of factors which had governed the preceding century of colonialism. As a result, the West has had to assume a new role in its relations with Asia. These momentous developments in themselves would have placed a heavy burden on Western statesmanship. But, in addition, there has arisen that most immediately disturbing problem, the phenomenal expansion of Communism in Asia during the postwar period. And the threat of further expansion remains.

In attempting to meet this challenge, any policy advanced by the West and by the free governments of Asia must contain assumptions about the character of Communism as a force in Asia. Whatever the counsel may be-be it to rely on military means, or to engage in programs of economic and technical assistance, or to utilize any other instrument of policy-it must be predicated on views as to the nature of Asian Communism. What political and social roles has Communism come to occupy in these so. cieties? What significance does the movement have for those who have been led to support it, and what considerations might encourage more of these people to reject it?

For many Westerners one of the most perplexing features of the rise of Communism in much of Asia has been the phenomenon of peoples who have always been considered far removed from the Western tradition of rational and scientific thought suddenly announcing to all that they are now champions of the most “scientific,” “most advance,” and most “progressive” theories of social organization. What has happened to the non-materialistic outlook, the lack of faith in progress, and the blend of otherworldliness and simple utilitarianism which were supposed to characterize them? Why have peoples who have generally been viewed as politically undisciplined chosen this most disciplined of political forms? How is it possible for those who have traditionally acted according to the rules of private relationships and nepotism now to seek their salvation in the impersonal climate and structure of Communism? What has made a seemingly pragmatic people whose loyalties used to be of a most parochial nature suddenly appear to be fanatical supporters of the abstract and universalistic ideas of Communism? It is from such questions as these that we are led to raise the more general query as to whether these people really know what Communism is, or, rather, whether their understanding of the movement is the same as that of Western Communists.

What are the characteristics of People’s Liberation Communism?

It would seem that People’s Liberation Communism is intimately related to a general process now going on in most underdeveloped areas of the world. Large numbers of people are losing their sense of identity with their traditional ways of life and are seeking restlessly to realize a modern way. In this setting, Communism seems to gain the support of those who have already been affected by what is generally called the impact of the West. They are the people who feel isolated from, and even hostile toward, the ways of their forefathers. But they are also the people who find that as yet they are not personally a part of the new; they are anxious to belong to the future, but they are concerned lest it pass them by.

These people see the Communist organization as a stable element in their otherwise highly unstable societies. In modern times, these societies have generally been subjected to war and violence to an extreme degree. In addition, they have experienced all the unsettling consequences of new and more industrial modes of life. At the very time when it seems urgently necessary to be able to foresee future developments, life has become far less predictable. Thus, to those who feel that they are caught up in a hostile and impersonal world, the party seems to offer hope of personal security.

The structure of Communism is something to which these people can hitch their ambitions. In the hierarchy of the party they can discover potentialities for advancement. They come to believe that in the structure of the party they can find a closer relationship between effort and reward than in anything they have known in either the static old moiety or the unstable, unpredictable, new one. They feel, too, that Communism can give them a formal status or rank that is commensurate with their estimates of their own abilities and that commands the respect of others.

Communism also offers to such persons a means for understanding and explaining the social realities that have been disturbing them. Events and developments that they have had to accept as the workings of an unknown fate become comprehensible through Communism. The promise of knowledge is also a promise of action; a sense of futility can be replaced by the spirit of the activist.

Thus, it seems that People’s Liberation Communism can best be explained by the role it has assumed in an acculturation process involving whole societies. Those who resort to this form of Communism are not the same as the psychologically maladjusted people who join the marginal American and British parties. They are members of a generation in transition. What primarily distinguishes them from the Asians who do not turn to Communism is that, on the one hand, they seem to find less of merit and of lasting value in their traditional cultures, and, on the other, they have generally been less fortunate or less able in discovering some other vehicle by which to become a part of the new way of life.

The spirit of impatience that grips such people as these gives to this form of Communism impetuous ambitions. A sense of the imminence of unlimited success runs through these movements. Moreover, these parties are guided by a tradition of political violence, accentuated by the fact that those who make up the movements no longer feel bound by strong standards of morality and decency, since they are experiencing what we euphemistically call a “social revolution.” Thus it is that these parties, driven on by a rootless people in search of power and success, carry to extreme lengths and by extreme measures the Communist ideal of sacrificing all to the tactics of political success.

These characteristics of People’s Liberation Communism are the important hypotheses that come out of this case study. They are the themes which run through this book, Guerilla Communism in Malaya: Its Social and Political Meaning

We shall see, for example, the peculiar place of violence in this form of Communism: first, in the doctrinal concepts of revolution in the colonies and semi-colonies; then, in the history of the Malayan party; and, finally, in the basic attitudes toward politics of those who have been personally involved in this movement. In the same manner, we shall meet with the extraordinary emphasis on tactical calculations that characterizes People’s Liberation Communism as we examine, first, its doctrinal model; then, the development of the Malayan party; and, lastly, the fundamental pattern of social behavior of individual former Malayan Communists.

In a sense, we shall be investigating the character of People’s Liberation Communism in the light of three sets of data. In Part I, it is the literature of Communism that provides the evidence of what Communism is intended to be like in underdeveloped countries. Here we discover the peculiarities that might be expected of a Leninist movement in such a setting and, more particularly, the assumptions about the nature of their societies that guide the leaders of these parties. In Part II, we turn to the experiences of the Malayan Communist Party to find out how it grew with respect to the doctrinal model of People’s Liberation Communism. This is an account of the way in which social and political forces have worked to mold a particular party. Part III, which provides the human dimension of this form of Communism, is based upon the words of those who have personally experienced it. Our interest here is in the life histories of sixty Chinese who joined the Malayan Communist movement and subsequently left it. Since we are concerned with the personal and psychological experiences of these people, we will examine how they grew up; how they ame to understand politics in general, and Communism in particular; how they sought to adjust to the demands of the party; and why they broke with the movement. The pattern of these experiences provides a further basis for comparing the type of Communism that the Malayan party represents with other types of Communist parties.

The primary focus of the major portion of our study in Guerilla Communism in Malaya: Its Social and Political Meaning is at the level of the personal, human experience of Communism. The apparently formless character of politics in most underdeveloped countries often suggests to the Western observer that people in such a setting behave only in direct response to general social and economic considerations. The existence of poverty, limited technology, overpopulation, and the like seems to provide an adequate explanation for all developments, including the rise of Communism. As a result, the impression is often given that in such societies people do not seek to influence their destinies through individual and group actions that are guided by an understanding of the potentialities of human effort. In short, such societies are often pictured as having no significant political life.

A fundamental assumption in this study is that if we are to learn why people in underdeveloped areas have turned to Communism, it is just as essential here as elsewhere to determine how they understand the nature and the possibilities of political action. Thus, we will explore in some detail the relationship between the general experiences of Malayan Chinese who became Communists and their attitudes toward what they considered the sphere of politics. We will be interested in discovering how they perceived their lot, the lines of reasoning they followed in seeking solutions to what they felt were their problems, and the patterns of calculations and emotional responses that led them to Communism. Such considerations as these may provide us with a basis for understanding how the process by which people break from their traditional ways can take certain forms which encourage susceptibility to Communism. Then, by relating the political behavior of these pe0ple to social conditions on the one hand, and to the character of Communism on the other, we will be able to see how People’s Liberation Communism derives both its strength and its weaknesses from a process of social change.

Needless to say, the fact that we shall be concentrating largely on the behavior of a particular group of Chinese means that care must be taken in generalizing from their behavior to that of other pe0ple in underdeveloped countries who have become Communists. Indeed, as we have suggested, Communist parties differ according to the types of people they attract and the historical circumstances of their growth; and thus it must be kept in mind that in many respects the Malayan party is unique. Without comparable studies of Communist movements in other underdeveloped countries, it is, of course, difficult to single out all of these differences. It is possible, however, to suggest some of the reasons why the Malayan party is of particular interest as a type of People’s Liberation movement.

Like all the other Communist parties in Southeast Asia, the Malayan party became a significant political movement only as a result of the disruption caused by the Second World War. During the period of Japanese occupation it led the most effective Communist-dominated resistance movement in the entire region. It emerged from the war as probably the best organized and most experienced party in Southeast Asia. After 1948, when all the parties initiated violent revolts, the Malayan party made the fullest commitment to a program of guerrilla warfare. Moreover, the Malayan party has had the closest associations with the Chinese Communists, mainly because it is composed almost entirely of Chinese. This means that a study of those who have joined it may shed light on how some people in China have reacted to Communism.

In addition, the Malayan movement is of particular interest because of the geographical importance of Malaya. As the peninsula that divides the South China Sea from the Bay of Bengal, Malaya occupies a strategic position in Southeast Asia. Its strategic significance is further heightened by the fact that it is one of the leading tin and rubber-producing areas of the world. Malaya is slightly larger than England without Wales. Four-fifths of the land is covered with dense jungles and mountain ranges; the rest consist; of rubber plantations, tin mines, towns, and kampongs (native villages).

The population of Malaya is composed of Malays, Chinese, and Indians. (The term “Malayan” is commonly used to cover all people who live in Malaya regardless of ethnic origins, but increasingly it is being used to describe those who have identified themselves politically with Malaya.) In 1951, the total population of the Federation of Malaya was 5,377,222, of which approximately 2,600,000 were Malays and 2,000,000 Chinese. The Colony of Singapore has over a million people, about 80 percent of whom are Chinese. Thus, if Singapore is included in Malaya, the Chinese are the country’s largest ethnic group. The Indian population consists mainly of Tamils who came from Madras to work in the rubber plantations.

The people of Malaya have one of the highest standards of living in all Asia. In particular, the Chinese immigrants have been able to find many economic opportunities there. In 1952, Chinese owned almost 600 of the approximately 700 tin mines in the country, and these mines produced nearly 40 per cent of Malaya’s tin. In 1951, Asian smallholders produced 46 percent of Malaya’s rubber output, and the estates, many of which are Asian-owned, produced 54 per cent. The Chinese have contributed greatly to the urban life of the country by energetically developing most of the retail and building trades. However, it must be made clear that these achievements reflect the success of only a few Chinese; the vast majority have a standard of living that leaves much to be desired.

Malaya is also of significance because it currently represents a major attempt of the British to develop democratic institutions in an Asian society. British control of the country is based on treaties with local rulers or sultans. The Federation of Malaya was established on February 1, 1948, and consists of nine Malay States and the Settlements of Penang and Malacca. Through the Federation government, the British have been seeking to encourage a sense of Malayan nationalism so that the country may soon become independent. Beginning first with an appointed legislative council and then in 1955 introducing national elections for a majority of the council members, they have endeavored to establish the basis for a strong, independent government. Some of the measures which the British have adapted in order to advance self-government have come as a response to the Communist challenge, and many more have been undertaken in spite of the fact that they have complicated the struggle against the Communists.

Indeed, it is a great tribute to British and Malayans alike that they have been able to make such substantial advances toward self-government during a period when they have had to devote much of their resources and attention to combating Communism. It is the hope of responsible British officials that Malaya may soon become one of the more stable independent countries in Southeast Asia. However, if this is to happen, the threat of Communism must first be met and Malayan society must develop its own defenses against subversion.

Thus, while we shall be interested in the Malayan Communist Party as an example of People’s Liberation Communism, it is also necessary to keep in mind that the Malayan movement is a distinctive and important one in itself.

Weight0.566 kg
Dimensions23.5 × 15.1 × 2 cm




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