A different tradition
A couple of weeks ago a bloke named Frederick made some interesting points (click on the comments box) about the political situation in East Timor and the policies of the Socialist Party of Timor, an organisation which has a small presence in parliament and won aound 3% of the vote in the recent Presidential elections. Here are some of Frederick's remarks, interspersed with my responses:
According to the Green Left Weekly "the only socialist party to contest the June 30 ballot is the Socialist Party of Timor (PST)...the PST will run five candidates, including its current MP Pedro da Costa, on the CNRT’s party list."
So after backing the right-wing, pro-Australian occupation, Washington - and Canberra-endorsed Ramos-Horta, the Socialist Party is now standing its candidates under the slate of Xanana Gusmao's new party, the CNRT. This the same Gusmao, of course, who played a leading role in the anti-Alkatiri coup orchestrated last year. This is a scandalous situation...
I think there is a massive contradiction between the Socialist Party's principles and the politics of Gusmao and his sidekick in the new party, Jose Ramos Horta, the man who calls John Howard a close friend, promises to turn East Timor into Hong Kong with a low flat tax, and published a defence of the invasion of Iraq in the Wall Street Journal.
If the Democatic Socialist Perspective, the publishers of Green Left Weekly, are to be believed, the Socialist Party represents a genuine socialist movement in East Timor and deserves the support and solidarity of all leftists in the region. But the scandalous role played by the Socialist Party in the presidential and parliamentary elections raises serious questions.
In the second round of the presidential vote, the party backed the pro-imperialist candidate of choice, Jose Ramos-Horta. Now comes the pay-off — the party has been allocated five spots on the parliamentary slate of Xanana Gusmao’s new party, the CNRT. And all this without a word of criticism or explanation in the Green Left Weekly or from the Democratic Socialist Perspective leadership.
During the Presidential campaign I was critical of the way that the Green Left Weekly, which is by some distance Australasia's most-read radical left paper, used interviews with figures in the Socialist Party of Timor as de facto reports on events in the country. These interviews often produced dubious statements, like the claim that Australian troops were playing a neutral role in the election campaign, and the claim that the campaign had been free of violence. Statements from Fretilin, the party facing off against Horta, suggested otherwise.
After the Socialist Party announced it was backing Horta in the second round of the election, the Democratic Socialist Perspective issued a statement distancing itself from this decision. Although this statement was not carried in the Green Left Weekly, the paper did bring some balance to its coverage of the results of the second round of the Presidential election. The paper carried an interview with a Socialist Party leader who attempted to justify his party's support for Horta, but this was juxtaposed with a very negative account of Horta's win which drew extensively on an interview with a Fretilin activist.
An investigation into the Socialist Party is long overdue. The following notes are intended as an initial contribution.
It certainly would be useful to know a lot more about the party, and about East Timor in general. We in the Australasian left are hamstrung, though, by linguistic barriers, the lack of a good communications infrastucture in many parts of East Timor, and our own lack of time and resources (many of us have to pay attention to issues closer to home, or other, more strategically important international issues, like the war in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, or the ongoing revolution in Venezuela).
As the quote from the GLW article above makes clear, the party stresses the “agricultural sector” in its campaign work, and its development of agricultural cooperatives, including coffee and other cash crops, appears to play a central role in its activities. This would indicate that the party’s base is not among the working class or urban youth but in a section of the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie. This is not accidental and reflects the party’s entire reformist and nationalist political orientation.
It seems to me that this is a very large inference to make from a passing reference in a short article. I think that there is a danger of trying to deal with the sketchy and unsatisfactory information we have about East Timor by wheeling out pre-existing theoretical frameworks and using them in a dogmatic fashion. Before you charge the Socialist Party's programme with ignoring the urban working class, you need to remember that East Timor is hardly an industrial powerhouse. Horta may dream of turning it into Hong Kong, but at the moment the country is, economically and socially speaking, more like New Zealand in the 1860s.
To put it another way: East Timor is not an unambiguously capitalist country. Islands of capitalist social relations like Dili and Bacau are surrounded by a sea of subsistence agriculture. The pre-capitalist and capitalist modes of production interpenetrate in various ways – for instance, subsistence farming acts as a ‘backup’ for some Timorese who also work casually for capitalist farms and in the service sector, meaning that their bosses can pay less than starvation wages and keep the labour market depressed and organised labour extremely weak.
In East Timor as in the Solomons, the Howard government is using military occupation and economic bullying to try to open up the economy for exploitation. The Australians want the removal of all laws that recognise the communal ownership of land, and restrict the right of individuals to buy and sell land. The communal ownership of land makes it difficult for Aussie companies to operate effectively, and also inhibits the development of local business, because it makes it difficult for capitalist banks to finance loans (how can 1,200 people take out a mortgage with ANZ to buy the stock they need to set up a hostel for tourists, for instance?).
Last year an Aussie comrade told me that socialism is off the agenda for a country like East Timor until a good deal of capitalist development has taken place. The way forward, he said, is greater national independence from imperialism and the building of a strong ‘national capitalism’. This would have to involve the movement of the majority of the population from small-scale farming to jobs in an urban, capitalist economy. I don’t think that Timorese who still live on collectively-owned land and operate in a pre-capitalist economy should have to taste enclosures, atomisation, urbanisation, and starvation wages in factory towns in the name of ‘economic development’. A ‘socialism’ that has that sort of experience as a prerequisite for its accomplishment is not worth the candle.
When we discuss societies like East Timor, we would be better off drawing on Marx’s late thinking about Russia and about certain pre-capitalist societies like the Iroquois Federation. In his late writing on Russia, Marx argues against those who see the encroachment of capitalist social relations into the countryside and the destruction of the peasant commune as preprequisites for socialism. He argues that the commune can in fact be the basis for the construction of a new, socialist society, and that Russia can skip the ‘stage’ of capitalist development altogether.
East Timor has its own tradition which gives socialist answers to problems of development. In his fine book East Timor: the Price of Freedom, Aussie historian John G Taylor documents the way that, in the period immediately after its formation in 1974, Fretilin fused traditional Timorese forms of organisation and cultural practices with carefully selected innovations based on the most suitable parts of socialist tradition.
Fretilin tried to hard to develop East Timor's economy - not by driving small farmers off their land and industrialising agriculture, or building steel mills with borrowed money, but by building up agricultural cooperatives that made use of what the great Maori socialist Te Whiti called 'the miracle of collective labour'. Strenuous efforts were made to develop health and education, but these services were dispersed, rather than centrally located, and made use of local organisational networks, rather than relying on big bureaucracies. Local languages and cultures were used rather than replaced with some artificial 'national culture' and lingua franca.
Here is how Taylor sums up his account of the remarkable society Fretilin was building when Indonesia invaded:
A society which had retained the cohesion of its own institutions, but whose development had been retarded for centuries by colonial rule, had finally created a national basis for this development, but on its own terms. The framework in which an independent nation was being built had taken indigenous society and culture as reference points, and located the development of spheres such as education, health and politics within them...Fretilin had devised development strategies whose full implementation could have created the infrastructure for a successfully planned economy, based on the indigenous needs of the population. (pgs 64-65)
The Socialist Party of Timor is one of the heirs to the early, revolutionary Fretilin, and this is shown in its approach to agriculture. Besides calling for the cooperative, locally controlled development of farming, the party has actually established a number of communal farms in different parts of the country. The party argues that these farms can be the basis for the transformation of East Timorese society, because they can fuse the collective ownership and labour typical of pre-capitalist society with socialist principles and economics. (These fledgling farms find large-scale parrallels, of course, in today’s Venezuela, where vast areas of land have been taken over by peasant co-ops, with the active assistance of the state.)
'Smokestack socialists' who can only imagine East Timor advancing to socialism via enclosures, forced migrations to the towns, and sweatshops are unwittingly echoing Horta's rhetoric about a new Hong Kong. There is a different tradition that offers a better way forward, and the fact that the Socialist Party still partly adheres to that tradition is what makes its support for Horta and Anzac troops so sad.