"Some Aspects of the Southern Question" in Colonial Malaya
10 min read

"Some Aspects of the Southern Question" in Colonial Malaya

"Some Aspects of the Southern Question" in Colonial Malaya

"Some Aspects of the Southern Question" was an unfinished essay by Antonio Gramsci, the last of his writings before incarceration in 1926. Whilst Gramsci considered it unfinished, it forms nevertheless one of his most developed accounts of Italian political dynamics in the 1920s, taking in the workers movement and the peasantry, as well as questions of underdevelopment, finance capitalism, colonialism and semi-colonialism, racism and hegemony. It is for that reason that the essay has served as a model for the analysis of capitalism and class in colonial and semi-colonial countries, particularly through Subaltern Studies.

The central question of "Some Aspects" is the way in which the Italian proletariat of the North can attain hegemony through a series of class alliances with the majority of the Italian working population against the Italian state. This entails for Gramsci the need to deal with the peasant question, but the peasant question is an extension of the Southern Question – a class distinction which is also a territorial/regional distinction. For the Italian proletariat to form a class alliance with the peasantry then, they have to resolve not only the peasant question but also the Southern Question, and incorporate these solutions into their programme.

Beyond the peasant question, however, the nature of the Southern Question threw up more obstacles against the unity of the masses. The division between North and South wasn't simply a territorial division but also a division of coloniser and colonised, "The Northern bourgeoisie has subjugated the South of Italy and the Islands, and reduced them to exploitable colonies", enslaved by the "the banks and the parasitic industry of the North". This colonial relation was also the basis for a process of "divide and rule" on the part of the Italian bourgeoisie. It threw up what might be termed "the myth of the lazy native":

It is well known what kind of ideology has been disseminated in myriad ways among the masses in the North, by the propagandists of the bourgeoisie: the South is the ball and chain which prevents the social development of Italy from progressing more rapidly; the Southerners are biologically inferior beings, semi- barbarians or total barbarians, by natural destiny; if the South is backward, the fault does not lie with the capitalist system or with any other historical cause, but with Nature, which has made the Southerners lazy, incapable, criminal and barbaric - only tempering this harsh fate with the purely individual explosion of a few great geniuses, like isolated palm-trees in an arid and barren desert.

This myth as Gramsci notes hadn't only perpetuated itself in bourgeois circles, but also amongst the Italian proletariat of the North, forming the basis for a proletarian chauvinism or egoism which divided them from the non-proletarian masses – a fact which has to be overcome for the proletariat to attain political hegemony.

The proletariat, in order to become capable as a class of governing, must strip itself of every residue of corporatism, every syndicalist prejudice and incrustation. What does this mean? That, in addition to the need to overcome the distinctions which exist between one trade and another, it is necessary - in order to win the trust and consent of the peasants and of some semiproletarian urban categories - to overcome certain prejudices and conquer certain forms of egoism which can and do subsist within the working class as such, even when craft particularism has disappeared. The metalworker, the joiner, the building-worker, etc., must not only think as proletarians, and no longer as metal-worker, joiner, building-worker, etc.; they must also take a further step. They must think as workers who are members of a class which aims to lead the peasants and intellectuals. Of a class which can win and build socialism only if it is aided and followed by the great majority of these social strata. If this is not achieved, the proletariat does not become the leading class; and these strata (which in Italy represent the majority of the population), remaining under bourgeois leadership, enable the State to resist the proletarian assault and wear it down.

Nevertheless as Gramsci notes, the dynamics in the South also work to prevent the realisation of proletarian hegemony in Italy. The South is characterised as "a great social disintegration" and the peasantry as having "no cohesion among themselves" and thus "incapable of giving a centralized expression to their aspirations and needs". The important class emerges then as the intellectual strata of the South, defined particularly by the role of bureaucrats – not the technical advisers of the modern industrial state, but the old intellectuals, the intermediaries between the peasantry and the central state.

Democratic in its peasant face; reactionary in the face turned towards the big landowner and the government: politicking, corrupt and faithless. One could not understand the traditional cast of the Southern political parties, if one did not take the characteristics of this social stratum into account.

This intellectual class emerges for Gramsci from the rural bourgeois:

the petty and medium landowner who is not a peasant, who does not work the land, who would be ashamed to be a farmer, but who wants to extract from the little land he has - leased out either for rent or on a simple share-cropping basis - the wherewithal to live fittingly; the wherewithal to send his sons to a university or seminary; and the wherewithal to provide dowries for his daughters, who must marry officers or civil functionaries of the State

Included in this class for Gramsci is the clergy who, beyond their spiritual function, perform roles as land administrators and money lenders. And form then alongside the bureaucrats the means through which the Southern peasant is tied to the landlord.

As Gramsci goes on to argue this intellectual class has been central to the process of the production of a "national" frame in Italy. Divided between North and South and peasant and worker, it has been this intellectual bureaucratic class, through the ideas of Croce, providing a particularly Southern form of Italian reformation which could form then a "national" alliance with the national and European culture of the Northern bourgeoisie.

Against this process Gramsci describes another process, defined by the figure of Piero Gobetti, the radical liberal journalist, who breaking from this tradition, provided a link between the proletariat of the North and intellectuals of the South who were anti-capitalist (though not communist) in outlook and who problematised the Southern Question along new lines – providing a means then for the proletariat to better incorporate a new approach to the Southern Question, and providing the proletariat, who had no intellectual class of their own, with intellectuals who promoted their programme. Beyond then a simple alliance between proletariat and peasantry, the role of the intellectuals mattered.

The alliance between proletariat and peasant masses requires this formation. It is all the more required by the alliance between proletariat and peasant masses in the South. The proletariat will destroy the Southern agrarian bloc insofar as it succeeds, through its party, in organizing increasingly significant masses of poor peasants into autonomous and independent formations. But its greater or lesser success in this necessary task will also depend upon its ability to break up the intellectual bloc that is the flexible, but extremely resistant, armour of the agrarian bloc. The proletariat was helped towards the accomplishment of this task by Piero Gobetti, and we think that the dead man’s friends will continue, even without his leadership, the work he undertook. This is gigantic and difficult, but precisely worthy of every sacrifice (even that of life, as in Gobetti’s case) on the part of those intellectuals (and there are many of them, more than is believed) - from North and South - who have understood that only two social forces are essentially national and bearers of the future: the proletariat and the peasants.

The Southern Question in Malaya

The problem of understanding the class basis of post-War Malayan politics has been a task made problematic by Malaya's relatively unique economic structure, its racialised division of labour, and its overlapping ethnic and class-based categories – a fact which marked the writings of the Malayan Left in the period. Whilst the standard theory has understood the class struggle as divided between an alliance consisting of British capital, local (Chinese and Indian capital) and the Malay aristocratic-bureaucratic class against an alliance of Chinese and Indian workers and the Malay peasantry, it has regularly been acknowledged that these coalitions contain as many forces for disunity as unity.

On the post-War Malayan Left this fact was reflected in a shift in discourse from early assumptions around the unity of races and classes in Malaya against foreign capital, towards a stronger recognition of the forces of disunity between workers and peasants, which came to require a reassessment of the Malayan situation along lines not dissimilar to Gramsci's understanding of Italian politics in "Some Aspects of the Southern Question". It problematised the way in which British capital and colonial domination divided the workers and peasants, it reassessed racial divisions between the workers and peasants (and their relation to cultural, linguistic and religious divisions), and sought to understand the ways in which Malay elites were able to capture the Malay peasantry.

Central to this was reassessment was the development of a concern with chauvinism on the Left, a factor related both to racial divisions between workers and peasants, but also differences in levels of political development, a fact which referred back to the nature of uneven economic development. Already in the 1930s Ho Chi Minh visiting Malaya had noted the way in which the MCP remained Chinese-centric and looked down upon the native Malays, in a manner which reproduced colonial ideas of Malayness:

They thought that being Chinese, they must work only for China, and only with the Chinese. They looked upon the natives as inferior and unnecessary people. There were no contacts, no relations between the Chinese members and the native masses. The consequences of that exclusiveness are that when they need the cooperation of the natives they find no one or find only mediocre elements.

Whilst in the next decade the MCP stepped up their attempts to make contacts amongst the Malays, this was principally undertaken through an idea of the equality of all races, premised itself upon an idea of colonialism as exploiting equally all races, which sought to mobilise the Malay peasantry alongside Chinese and Indian workers, under the banner of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggle. Yet this line continuously failed to mobilise significant sections of the Malay peasantry.

By the 1950s the approach of the Malayan Left reflected far more Gramsci's own concerns regarding proletarian hegemony in socialist struggle. Recognising the ways in which the Malay peasantry had been both economically and culturally marginalised under British rule and the way in which the division between the workers and peasants was not only a class distinction but also an ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious distinction. The theory of the united front of peasants and workers developed by the Socialist Front towards the end of the 1950s took seriously the problem of the need for the workers to strip themselves of corporatist ideas and chauvinism and egoism (both in terms of class and ethnicity), and to think of themselves not only as a proletarian class, but as a political class capable of leading the peasants and intellectuals of other races and religions, a fact reflected in the focus given to the Malay language and the relationship between socialism and Islam in their early policy statement "Towards a New Malaya". This was also reflected in their focus given to Marhaenism and peasant ideology more generally.

In doing so they argued that what was central to socialist struggle in Malaya was the need for the more advanced classes to privilege and incorporate the cultural and class perspectives of those less advanced classes – notably the Malay peasantry. And therefore what they were really reflecting upon was Gramsci's understanding of hegemony outlined in "Some Aspects" – the production of national leadership by casting off corporate class interests and incorporating sub-altern perspectives.

Yet whilst the Malayan Left in the period was reflecting on themes of class and hegemony in the context of uneven economic and cultural development, what was less discussed was the role played by "intellectuals" in this class struggle.  The focus given to such a group by Gramsci, and their role in leading the peasantry in the Italian South, might however provide a useful frame to understand the nature of leadership over the Malay peasantry in the post-War period.

The radical intellectuals were those in the Malayan context who emerged with the Malay Nationalist Party, radical journalists, writers and religious clerics who espoused a mixture of liberal, nationalist and Islamist thought and were not communists but in alliance with the socialism of the workers movement and sought to link up that movement with the Malay peasantry. Through the AMCJA-PUTERA and the Socialist Front they were therefore part of an attempt to unite Malay radical intellectuals with the Malayan proletariat, and thus in Gramsci's terms to "break up the intellectual bloc that is the flexible, but extremely resistant, armour of the agrarian bloc". This was evident in the mixture of socialism, nationalism and Islamism espoused by figures such as Burhanuddin Al-Helmy and the Marhaen socialism of Boestamam and the Parti Rakyat which both helped link the Malay peasantry to the workers movement, and revise the understanding of the workers movement on the Malay question.

Yet the very nature of the relationship between the intellectual bloc and the agrarian bloc and the question of whether or not this intellectual bloc played the kind of role  of shoring up the agrarian bloc Gramsci outlines in his essay has been less explored in the Malayan context. To explore this it would be necessary to look towards the two groups outlined by Gramsci the government bureaucrats and religious leaders .

As in the Italian South these were two groups who played important roles in rural Malaya, with government bureaucrats, particularly teachers, playing important roles in rural areas both as land owners, educators and in village politics, playing both a cultural and intellectual role at the village level. This process is evident in the accounts of anthropologists of the Malay peasantry such as Syed Husin Ali or Clive Kessler, who highlight the intellectual roles played by teachers in rural Malaya, both as a functional role through the distribution of knowledge and through their connections with local towns, as well as a cultural role in discussing politics and national issues with villagers. As such accounts show this role of intellectuals in the formation of hegemony could function both to reinforce support for the Alliance government of the period, as well in studies such as Kesller's in Kelantan, to intellectually contest support for the Alliance government and provide alternative bases for leadership amongst the peasantry, both religious and secular. Similar roles were also evident in the formation of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and the role played by intellectuals, both radicals and traditionalists in the construction of a Malayan nation-state.

Returning to Gramsci's essay can lead us however to focus on the more dynamic process through which these groups were incorporated within nationalist ideology and the neo-colonial state, as well as the ways in which these groups absorbed and reproduced what Gramsci would see a elements of modern bourgeois ideology, producing a tension which helped shaped nationalist politics in Malaya. One such event would be the debates on the national language and the political role played by Malay teachers in pushing the Alliance government in the immediate period after Independence towards a stronger support for Malay language education, a debate which opened up splits between Malay teachers and political elites, but which also was part of significant debates on the Malayan Left over the cultural basis of a Malayan nation, and which was central to the question of hegemony on the Left in this period.

This dynamic outlined by Gramsci can then help to explain not only the role of intellectuals in forming the basis for a politics of proletarian hegemony as well as in incorporating the peasantry into the post-colonial nation-state, but also more generally the central role played by the bureaucracy, including the religious bureaucracy, in post-colonial state formation in Malaya – important both to the incorporation of the peasantry and the shoring up of the agrarian bloc, preventing therefore the kind of national-capitalist revolution which would overcome the uneven structure of Malayan capitalism.