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LALIT Open Symposium: Rajni Lallah on Class analysis, Colonisation and Decolonisation


My presentation today is based on articles that were published in the first 100 editions of LALIT magazines that started out as Lalit de Klas (Class Struggle) magazines in November 1976, and came out as Revi LALIT magazines as from 1982. [The magazine still comes out.]

 My main point is that the movement for decolonisation in which Independence formed an important phase means different things for each different social class.

 When I am referring to the term “social class”, I am referring to a very specific concept: I am referring to that pyramidal structure on which class society is based: a dominant class at the top of this pyramid, that is, the capitalist class or bourgeoisie that owns the means of survival, the means of production: land, factories, stocks of all kinds, including money; the petty-bourgeoisie in the middle of the pyramid: managers, “small planters”, who employ workers, small-scale traders; and the great majority of people in the working class at the bottom of the pyramid: people who have nothing but our labour to sell for a living, whether this be physical labour or intellectual labour. Slaves and indentured labourers were the ancestors of the present-day Mauritian working class.

 In Revi LALIT (LALIT magazine), there are many, many ways that different social classes have affected the nature of colonisation and the nature of the decolonisation process, and these have, in turn, been analysed in different ways. I have had the difficult task of choosing one angle out of those many, many angles used in Revi LALIT to speak about, and to do that in less than 15 minutes. So here we go:

 In the times of French, then later British colonisation, there were in the dominant class, two distinct sections: Firstly, there was the French and later, British ruling class that lived in and operated from the colonial centres represented by the Governor and the rest of the colonial state here in Mauritius; and secondly, there was the coloniser class controlling land, trade and commerce that lived and operated from Mauritius. These two sections of the bourgeoisie reigned together here, but they were often in strife.

 For instance, when in France, slavery was abolished during the revolutionary period in 1794-6, slave owners here were adamantly against. And the French Governor here came to their defense. When two French State officials were sent here to ensure slavery was abolished, colonisers here drove them out of Mauritius.

 It was only 39 years later that slavery was effectively abolished. By then, it was by the British. Then again, it was not easy – colonisers revolted and shops closed for some 45 days. There was a boss’s strike, led by d’Epinay. Negotiations ensued, then a deal was struck for slavery to be abolished: slave owners got compensation, got their own newspaper, their own bank (the MCB, still here today), and some control over the State and the State apparatus.

 So the class that would later grow into the historical bourgeoisie was sometimes in conflict with the dominant bourgeoisie in the colonial centre, until a new balance of class forces was established and some alliance set up, till the next bout of conflict emerged.

 Apart from the historical bourgeoisie, another section of the bourgeoisie would take shape just before Independence. This bourgeoisie was intricately linked to the struggle for Independence. Let’s have a look at this new, emerging section of the bourgeoisie.

 Between 1910 and 1936, during indentured labour period and after, there was the formation of an Indo-Mauritian petty bourgeoisie. This petty bourgoisie was not formed by cane labourers (who had no surplus), but out of people like overseers (sirdar) in charge of labourer work gangs, job contractors, money lenders, small traders, middlemen – in the cane sector.

 They bought marginal land from the sugar estates (who wanted to sell it because their profits in milling were higher than in planting cane). They planted cane, sold it to the sugar factory and this is how they got their capital. They were now in a position to enter the capitalist class, having capital, but their way up was blocked by the historical bourgeoisie’s monopoly on the economy: the historical bourgeoisie controlled everything. So this petty-bourgeoisie was in conflict with the historical bourgeoisie. 

 The Labour Party was born in 1936, a party rooted in its first years in the working class. And in 1937 there were big working class uprisings. The colonial State responded with repression against working class leaders in the Labour Party confining many of them to house arrest, “deporting” workers’ leader Emmanuel Anquetil to Rodrigues, suspending the Societe de Bienfaisance (the union-like structure set up by the Labour Party). In the face of such repression wrought in the class interests of both the historic bourgeoisie and the colonial bourgeoisie, the chances of a working-class-led movement for decolonisation became slim. 

 So it was in the context of this period of repression against the working class that in 1940, and of the uprising in 1943, that another political group was formed – the Advance Group that published the Advance newspaper. The Advance Group unified an ‘Indo-Mauritian’ (the indentured labour system from India had only stopped in 1923-24) petty-bourgeoisie blocked by the historical bourgeoisie, stumbling when trying to climb into the bourgeoisie. Ramgoolam, the father, was in this Group. 

 Ramgoolam, the father, had stood as an independent candidate for the 1948 general elections, against the Labour Party. After that, between 1948 and 1953, the Advance Group took over the leadership of the Labour Party, in alliance with another section of the petty-bourgeoisie that was also obstructed in its uphill path in the class hierarchy: the Leals, Raults, Forgets amongst others who also grouped around a newspaper, L’Express in 1963. It was this petty-bourgeois alliance that finally led the independence movement.

 Why? It wanted control over the State to get enough clout to catapult itself into the capitalist class. It wanted to utilize the powers of the State in order to rise into the bourgeoisie proper. And here we come to another important point when we are looking at the question of social classes, colonisation and decolonisation: the nature of the colonial state that we have inherited here.

 The colonial state was not like the state in non-colonised capitalist countries: it was a super-developed state with relative autonomy in relation to all social classes. The colonial centre being far away, the Governor and the rest of the colonial administration needed the means and the power to impose its rule on all other social classes, including the bourgeoisie that had always been so hard to control and also, to configure the colony to suit the needs of the bourgeoisie in the colonial centre. Power was concentrated in the hands of the Governor, a concentration of power that after independence, the Prime Minister and his Ministers would inherit.

 So the petty bourgeoisie thought it would actually have formidable power if it controlled this kind of over-developed State apparatus after Independence, enabling it to wreak enough power to catapult itself into the capitalist class. This is the process that we in LALIT, describe as being the process in which a “state bourgeoisie” got formed here. 

 The Labour Party, led by this petty bourgeoisie and heading the independence movement, did get the support of the working class. Workers believed that Independence would bring them emancipation, workers’ rights, access to land and forage. And they thus made a class alliance with the petty bourgeoisie against both the historical bourgeoisie i.e. the bosses in the sugar industry (the big employers) and also the colonial ruling class, which opposed Independence and tried to gather social forces with it.

All this explains what the independence movement meant for different social classes:

 The PMSD, was the party of the historic bourgeoisie and it campaigned against independence. Independence would at best challenge the historic bourgeoisies’s monopoly. But the sugar bosses took looming Independence as an existential threat. (In fact they had taken abolition and even universal suffrage as existential threats.) This time they organized race conflict (“bagar rasyal”) hoping this would prevent the British from withdrawing. But the British just slapped on a State of Emergency and curfews.

 The Labour Party represented a class alliance between a soon-to-be state bourgeoisie and the working class on a common platform against the colonial ruling class, which nevertheless was forced to support the Labour Party, and, of course, against the historic bourgeoisie, which was represented by the PMSD.

 So, the bourgeosie found itself still divided immediately after Independence. And it found itself having to impose a state of emergency.

 No wonder very soon after independence, a Labour-PMSD coalition government was formed: whether historic or state, the bourgeoisie is still the bourgeoisie in class society. Curiously this coalition was stage-managed by the French Ambassador at the time, not the British High Commissioner. All this to say that, after trouble and strife between different sections of the capitalist class, a new balance of forces gels between the different sub-sections of the bourgeoisie until a next spout of trouble and strife again modifies the balance of class forces.

 With such a class analysis, it is easy to understand what happened after independence: how the MMM got born and got its momentum as the working class realised that the party it thought its own, Labour, had become a capitalist party, in a coalition with the oligarchs. The MMM, the party of the working class between 1969 and 1980 continued the struggle for real decolonisation and for socialism. When the MMM officially abandoned class struggle, abandoned its working class politics in 1981, Lalit de Klas became the LALIT party in 1982 after forcing a vote in the MMM delegates’ assembly. Since 1981, because of its abandonment of class struggle politics and because of its alliance with the PSM, has, despite its 60-0 victory in the general elections with the PSM, the MMM has been in decline and has just gone on and on splitting into fragments, until the most recent split last month.

 With LALIT’s class analysis, it is easier to understand what Navin Ramgoolam, or Aneerood Jugnauth and Lutchmeenaraidoo were talking about when they came out with slogans about the “democratisation of the economy” – these slogans were about making space and giving state clout to the petty bourgeoisie still, until today, over-shadowed and blocked by the powerful historic bourgeoisie, even 50 years after independence.

 Often, behind the eternal splits of political alliances between all the pro-capitalist parties between 1982 and today, were different capitalist interests at loggerheads for a time, only until a new balance between them was formed. 

 This is the legacy of colonisation, and also the legacy of the independence movement that formed part of the greater struggle for decolonisation that still continues today.

 In the 100 editions of Revi Lalit de klas and Revi LALIT, our class analysis has developed enough for us to gain an insight on social classes and the way they have influenced colonisation and decolonisation. Comrades Ram Seegobin and Lindsey Collen contributed a lot to the class analysis on the state bourgeoisie, as well as analysis on the historic class bloc that came out of colonisation and independence. And all LALIT members have contributed in deepening it, developing it and other areas of class analysis in the last 42 years.

 I have made a list of all articles in Revi LALIT that analyse social classes, or includes analysis of social classes for the first 100 editions. I hope they will be on our website in a week or two.

 For those who want to know more immediately, I recommend an excellent book Klas edited by Comrade Alain Ah-Vee that contains key articles in Revi LALIT and in other LALIT documents and publications.

 Rajni Lallah