The Guardian • Issue #2095

LPRP and Laos Development

Emblem of Laos

Image: public domain

In 2016, the Laos People’s Revolutionary Party formalised Kaysone Phomvihane Thought at their 10th Congress. Kaysone Phomvihane was Laotian leader from 1975 till his death in 1992. It was an extraordinary step that consolidated the historical place of LPRP ideology and set the course for Lao development this century. Since that time I’ve read with great interest two books on Laos by the Australian anthropologist Holly High, Projectland: Life in a Lao Socialist Model Village (2021) and the earlier Fields of Desire: Poverty and Policy in Laos (2014).

Holly High’s approach in these books is psychoanalytic-ethnographic and thus personalist – they both concern periods of time living in and working with Laos villages – yet High’s observations are remarkable, and deserve more attention I think particularly from Western observers or those in the Western left likely to dismiss the achievements of Asian socialisms: on display is the quantitative and qualitative difference between the governance models of countries whose path is that of bourgeois financial capitalism, and nations whose aim and intention is to achieve and maintain what Engels called proletarian gewalt, proletarian power. High’s empirical and experiential fieldwork ultimately reveals that Laos, stewarded by the LPRP, remains on the socialist path.

Yet the path, is long and difficult. The complexity of ‘chintanakan mai’ or ‘New Thinking’ in Laos since 1986 has undeniably produced clashing polarities. Legitimacy from the masses has always remained crucial to the regime’s survival. Socialist governance is a complicated craft and there’s no one correct way to do it. Lao socialism cannot be said to follow the same trajectory as Soviet, Vietnamese or Chinese socialism. For High, the village of New Kandon could not be described in any other way than that “a success”; but how? Not all “poverty reduction projects” have succeeded. High conducts a close examination of their failures in Fields of Desire, and subsequent attempts from the government to return to redress these failures, often bureaucratic in nature.

The flipside to this in Projectland is New Kandon, an exception and thus a model: “Success and necessity are the two poles of this book, just as they are the two poles that I heard in the metalanguage evaluating daily dramas in Kandon.” The primary difficulty High faces in writing about this is an inherent bias in her field. It’s worth an extended quotation from High here:

A core argument of this book is that Laos is a socialist country. My position is that there is such a thing as Lao socialism, and that it needs to be understood on its own terms, as it is actually lived, discussed, and deployed in that country. In doing so, I am arguing against two tendencies evident in English-language writing about Laos: to hold that either Lao socialism is not a current issue because Laos is already post-socialist, or that Lao socialism is not “real” socialism because it is not the same as socialism elsewhere. I shall deal with each of these in turn.

These two threads make a fascinating dialectic. The importance of Kaysone Phomvihane is not far away from all this; gender inequality, for instance, was a centrepiece of Kaysone’s cultural transformation drive from the 1980s, “maintained as a goal” ever since. Suffering in Kandon continues, but the reality of such transformation is clear in women’s work. High notes that readings of Engels featured in Lao anthropology and its understanding of the relation of culture, clan and tribe to the development of Lao socialism. Much this goes beyond ethnography, and we can see High struggling with the question of projection throughout her analysis, both her own and the alleged projection of solidarity and unity upon the populace. This ends up being the clear critical argument underpinning Projectland.

Readers will make of it what they will, but as I read it, a more Marxist argument here could apply: is it not precisely new social relations that emerge with this socialist metalanguage of success, via the “project” itself, through social and economic development? In Kaysone’s book Revolution: Practice and Prospects, he is adamant that the authority of proletarian governance is ultimately a lateral/horizontal, not just vertical, authority. Governance structures of the new system must become part of the social structure and the “establishment of new social relations, the formation of the new socialist individual on the basis of a harmonious combination of social obligations and genuine personal freedom.” High would claim of course that this has not found full realisation, but if socialism and concomitant successes, joys, and victories are impossible without the LPRP, needless to say then it is crucial that we recognise its role from the perspective of what we know about proletarian dictatorship.

From national liberation and brutal imperial wars to socialist construction and fruits of socialist success – the emergence of new social relations – it’s simply not possible for this to emerge without socialism as a goal set by the LPRP, without its ongoing stewardship. High can say “Lao socialism remains a vanguard project. There is no end in sight envisioned for the leadership of the LPRP,” but faults the LPRP for its inability to admit difference. One is left wondering, by the close of the book, how socialism of the kind High describes would be possible without such a vanguard in place. Moreover, what projection is contained in the phrase “no end in sight?”

More work needs to be done in the area of the development of socialist society and the social relations of Eastern socialism. We see this in works by Roland Boer on China, which are commensurate with my experience working in China: what people in the West – commentators, and even academics – say about socialist life and lived socialist experience is often wrong, arrogant, based on hearsay or worse. Struggles are not put adequately in context, the balance sheet is distorted. The good life in existing socialist countries binds documents to experience, theory to practice, and authority to participation in ways many in the West have hitherto been unable to imagine. This goes beyond the academic – it’s the sphere of international proletarian solidarity work.

It may come as a surprise, to some, that countries ruled by communist parties, with the vital support of the masses, have (through failures and successes, staying the path through dark times, and oftentimes with a dose of quiet humility) been working precisely to achieve what Marx called Kommunisten Gesellschaft: a communist society.

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