Jit Phumisak (1930-1966) is regarded as Thailand’s preeminent leftist artist, thinker, writer and analyst, even decades after his murder at the hands of the Thai state. He was known for his poetry, wit, love of linguistics and being a devoted Marxist revolutionary. In 1965 he put down his pen for a rifle and joined the rural Communist Party of Thailand’s insurgency. Always a free thinker, Jit often found himself at odds with the CPT leadership. Certainly, his analysis stands in contrast to the Maoist tendency common to leftist circles in Thailand at the time. However, his texts were still widely circulated among all leftist radicals and still are to this day, even valued by reactionary elements within Thailand.
Jit’s seminal text The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today (1957) remains an essential read for anyone trying to understand the origins of Thai society from a Marxist perspective. However, while the book makes constant references to Thai society, Jit’s analysis is a global one, not tied to the kingdom, making it a welcome example of early analysis of the development of capitalism from the global south. Readers could extrapolate his works to apply to not just Southeast Asia, but to any feudal society. Furthermore, given the resurgence of the term Saktina (feudalism) in the current Thai political discourse (often used in reference to the current iteration of the monarchy), understanding the term has become all the more important in the Thai context.
The purpose of the book was to expose how the plight of the rural Thai peasant in the 1950’s was a vestige rooted in the old feudal system, laying bare its horrors and its exploitative framework. Jit wrote this book as an antagonistic rebuttal against the revisionist history of the ruling classes taught to most Thai’s at the time (and still today), which typically depicts a utopian agrarian past, rather than the brutal exploitative reality.
This series of articles hopes to provide a summary and general overview of the major themes and conclusions found in The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today — written in Thai under the pseudonym Somsamai Srisudravarna. These articles are based on the translation by Craig J. Reynolds. It is worth noting that Jit’s original text was rushed and partially unfinished.
Jit understood that the two key means of oppression of the Thai working class were imperialism and the vestiges of the feudal system. This is where we acquire the rationale for the ‘semi-feudal, semi-colonial’ analysis of Thai conditions at the time of Jit’s writing (which I would argue can still be applicable today). Jit focuses on the development and persistence of the Thai feudal system, as well as giving a general overview of its mode of production, he calls it ‘Saktina’, and so shall I.
Part I: The Saktina Production System as a Whole
Land ownership is intrinsically tied to the literal translation of ‘Saktina’, as it means ‘power in controlling the fields’. This is the defining feature of this mode of production. In the same way that capital is an accumulated economic factor under Capitalism, during the Saktina system, it was land. This meant that the ‘big landlords’ (akin to landed gentry) were in possession of the means of production, whereas the ‘phrai’ or ‘lek’ (agricultural slave/serf class) were not. While there were some independent peasants (free people) who did own small portions of land, they were not big landowners— these can be seen as analogous to the petit-bourgeois or middle-class today.
Jit’s understanding of the term Saktina includes economic, political and cultural dimensions. He uses the term Saktina as an adjective and noun (i.e. as both ‘Feudal’ and ‘Feudalism’ as well as ‘the ruling class’ under Feudalism).
The Economic Characteristics of the Saktina System
Social Classes and their Relations of Production
As society was divided into those who owned land and those who did not, these are generally the key ‘classes’ within Saktina.
Phrai— agricultural slaves/ serfs, they were bound to a specific plot of land and were bought and sold alongside it. They paid ‘Suai’ (a tax-in-kind, a proportion of their harvest) to keep some of their yield from the land that they worked on. Their Suai ranged from 50-80% of an annual yield.
Thay— freemen, they were not bound to land, but had to rent it from landlords and pay a Suai of anywhere between 30%-50% of their yields.
Independent Peasants— small scale landowners, they did not rent land, but they did pay land tax (in hard currency) to the Saktina class (which was composed of big landlords).
Landlords (Jao)— typically aristocracy, characterised by their ownership of land and phrai, in large and small quantities (those who held smaller parcels of land would later become part of the emergent middle class).
In addition to the above, a system of corvée labour forced peasants into performing hard labour for their landlords or regional lords lasting from 3-6 months a year. This was justified by the ruling class as a means to give thanks for the lord’s supposed ‘generosity’.
The Form and Purpose of Production
Technological developments in agriculture allowed peasants to increase their crop yields, reducing time and labour spent in the fields. This permitted them to spend more time supplementing their income through handicrafts. However, this led to landlords expropriating a greater proportion of their yields. The purpose of agricultural production for the peasantry was subsistence. The expropriated surplus produce was for the landlords to consume or it was used to pay for the upkeep of their military forces and general maintenance of their land and later to trade.
The Trade Monopoly System of the Ruling Masters
Over time regional trade arose as a new purpose for production. This was due to more productive farming techniques, the acquisition of more land by landlords, the increased safety of maritime travel, and the expansion of small-scale trading for luxury goods. These developments allowed for a greater accumulation of wealth for the landowning class, who then cemented their control by ensuring that they had a monopoly on the trade system. They did this by enacting laws that made landlords middlemen between merchants and peasants— forbidding direct trade between the two— as well as monopolising shipbuilding and increasing taxes to limit the excess produce the peasantry could use to barter or trade with.
Jit identified three periods of exploitation within the Saktina period, as well as a final period illustrating the decline of the economic system as a whole:
- Pre-Monopoly: The extraction of labour, taxes, and levies from peasants. This occurred to such a degree that peasants were forced to borrow at extortionate rates (usury) pushing them further into dependence and debt.
- Emerging Monopoly: A sharp increase in the rate of Suai paid for the purpose of trading surplus produce for foreign goods.
- Established Monopoly: This could be considered the peak of the Saktina system as it saw the highest level of exploitation and wealth extraction from the peasantry, as a result of the established trade monopoly system.
- Declining Monopoly: Due to restrictions imposed by the ruling class, people who were neither large landlords nor peasants started freely associating to promote a more laissez-faire conception of trade. They formed guilds to protect themselves and further their material interests. This group became the bourgeoisie, the middle class, or the ‘kadumphi’. Opposed to those who controlled the monopolistic nature of the economy, they wanted to utilise new technologies and techniques to advance small-time handicrafts to large-scale manufacturing, giving rise to ‘industry’. With that, they began developing the commercial system of ‘seriniyom’ (liberalism) and the productive system of ‘thunniyom’ (capitalism). The ‘kadumphi’ soon became the ‘naithun’ (capitalist class). This era was in Jit’s analysis, the origins of capitalism.
The Economic Characteristics of the Final Era of the Saktina System
- ‘Agricultural Backwardness’: The height of technology for Saktina agricultural production was characterised by the use of natural fertiliser, draft animals, seasonal cultivation and excavated irrigation. Jit argues that there was no further technological potential to develop due to the Saktina economic structure. This upper limit on technological development resulted in a ceiling on productivity, causing the economy to be unable to create any more wealth— the kadumphi would therefore continue to miss out, unless they were able to develop wealth outside of the agricultural means of production.
- ‘Ruin of the Peasantry’: The extreme exploitation of peasants restricted any social mobility, as such they would begin flocking to newly formed cities due to new opportunities for income— creating industrial centres.
The Political Characteristics of the Saktina System
The Rule of the Saktina Class
The centralisation of land (economic power) in the hands of the landlord class permitted them total political power over the peasantry. The institutions that they could afford to set up focused on ensuring the perpetuation of their wealth and ownership of the means of production. At the head of these institutions were the ‘Kshatriya’, or ‘prachao phaendin’ (the Monarch). These words are etymologically linked to the notions of land ownership, governance, control, and authority. Further, territory governed by the Monarch called the ‘lord’s domain’ or the ‘phrarajanakhet’, again etymologically linking authority with the word ‘khett’ meaning ‘arable land’.
Conflict within the Saktina Class
At the beginning of the Saktina period, the Monarchy found that it could not maintain direct and total control over its kingdom. Oftentimes, in these Saktina institutions, members of the ruling class who did not find the Monarch’s policies financially favourable would enter periods of conflict either with the Monarchy, representatives of the Monarchy (puppets/vassals etc), or other nearby muangs (provincial capitals). This necessitated a political hierarchy of the Monarch at the top, lords in the middle, and the peasantry at the very bottom.
The Monarchy began to understand that there needed to be rapid decentralisation of power in order to ease tensions between the Monarch and lords within his domain. However, as time went on and these conflicts continued, the Monarchy grew tired of granting concessions to these rebellious lords and started to find new mechanisms to increase the degree of direct control over the lords.
The Monarchy had two main methods:
- The replacement of rebelling lords with members of the Saktina class that were loyal to the current Monarchy. However, this maintained the distinction between vassal land and the Monarch’s land, which perpetuated the Saktina system, without any kind of structural development.
- The cultivation of a new breed of ruling masters whose interests were the same as the Monarchy. This was the creation of jaomuang (provincial governors), ensuring that any previously dispersed power and land was now completely under the authority of the Monarchy.
The Struggles of the Peasantry
The division of the peasantry into separated plots of land meant it was difficult to develop solidarity and organise to protect their class interests. The dominant Saktina class also developed ideological doctrines that repressed the wills of the peasantry. This caused the peasant class to only rise up in intermittent disorganised rebellions that were easily crushed.
As a result, the peasants turned to other classes for leadership. Their closest point of contact with the Saktina system was their landlord, who at the beginning of the Saktina period, could harness the formless and seemingly directionless anger of the peasantry as a means to their own ends to further their own interests.
The peasantry also later turned to the emergent middle class for allyship as they both shared grievances with the Saktina class, but the emergent middle class’ antagonism with the Saktina class was more economic than existential, hence they were willing to collaborate to develop an economic structure that prioritised a ‘liberal trade-and-industry’ system (capitalism), while maintaining the caste characteristics of Saktina.
However, now that the industrial bourgeoisie had begun to develop, so too did the industrial proletariat, which Jit deems a greater source of leadership for the disorganised peasantry, as the proletariat worked in productive settings more conducive to class consciousness and solidarity— factories etc.
The Struggle between the Middle and Saktina Classes
The emergent middle class was continually repressed by the Saktina class, as the Saktina class stridently worked to maintain their trade monopoly system. This imbued the middle class with revolutionary potential and they worked towards overturning the Saktina system by creating their own political, economic and social institutions. However, this emergent middle class required popular support from the peasantry as a political mandate. As previously mentioned, this was granted by the peasantry, but only resulted in changes to the nature of exploitation they faced, rather than eliminating it.
The Cultural Characteristics of the Saktina System
Social Relations and Generational Wealth, Power, and Inequality
Social mobility and high social standing were only achievable if one was of high birth or a highly savvy landowner, this made emancipation impossible for much of the peasantry. They were also looked down upon as beings for whom boon (merit) was unfathomable, indeed, the phrai were not even deemed worthy of personhood.
To ensure a family maintained their standing, Saktina class families intermarried. High class men did occasionally marry phrai women, who were deemed property and thus the subject of his every whim. Saktina women were not permitted to marry phrai men as women were not seen as equal to their male counterparts.
Additionally, the Saktina class popularised the notion that their success came as the result of holy merit which was seen as granted or honoured by ‘the lords and deities’. Again painting the peasantry as dishonourable and not worthy of respect, thus perpetuating their oppression, a kind of Saktina realism.
The Continuation of Slavery
As phrai were simply agricultural slaves with no sense of personhood, their eventual emancipation, at the end of the Saktina era, had no real benefit to their economic conditions as they were still not landowners and now as free people they had no capital to become so. Therefore, they were forced into extortive labour, selling themselves in the newly developed capitalist mode of production.
As polities and kingdoms were under the control of their Monarchs, conflict amongst the Monarchs translated to conflict between polities. As such, the Monarchy was able to cultivate hostility between different nationalities or ethnic groups, as a means to deter inter-ethnic solidarity within the peasant class. These cultivated antagonisms included those within the borders of polities presided over by the same Monarch, giving rise to inter-ethnic conflicts.
Saktina also upheld patriarchy, and women were seen as objects of the Saktina class’ desire. Children were also considered to be nothing more than tools of expanding control, via extending lineages, or they were deemed expendable by-products of evenings of desire produced by members of the Monarch’s harem.
Customs and Traditions
Only customs and traditions that upheld the Saktina system were encouraged by the Saktina class. This meant most practices originated from the Saktina class, however some traditions emerging from the peasantry were able to be co-opted, reinforcing their own continued oppression. Such practices were ingrained into the cultural norms and customs of all classes, often unknowingly to those practising them.
The emergent middle class considered many of these traditions to be oppressive, the emergent bourgeoisie capitalist system managed to change some of these restrictive traditions. However, the middle-class’ tendency to compromise with the Saktina class resulted in the long-running persistence and prevalence of Saktina traditions to this day.
Art and Literature
Art and literature were encouraged only when they upheld the Saktina system; any art produced by the peasantry was seen as vulgar. The Saktina concept of ‘art for life’ was intended to promote the Saktina way of life (similar to romanticism) which was not agreeable to the new bourgeois artists who wanted to cultivate an ‘art for art’s sake’ (similar to aestheticism).
Education and the development of knowledge were structured and permitted in order to maintain a narrative that upheld the Saktina system at the expense of the peasantry. Jit identified history as a field of study wherein popular movements can be analysed and learned from, however, the Saktina class taught their own version of history which deified Kings and excluded the role of the masses.
Formal education generally occurred in the households of the ruling masters, ensuring only the Saktina class were permitted to have an education. This resulted in learned peoples being solely found in regional courts. The ruling class required educated individuals for the express purpose of managing their lands, as such only limited fields of study were available, thus upholding the Saktina system. These fields were primarily related to commerce, finance and law.
The emergent bourgeoisie took umbrage with the monopoly on education and founded their own bourgeois educational institutions to promote their liberal ideas. However, they adopted the Saktina method of teaching their narrative to sustain their system as soon as they established their own class’ political and economic structure (capitalism).
The early Saktina class was in conflict with organised religion. However, the economic and political dominance of the Saktina class pressured religious institutions to acquiesce to Saktina rule. This was achieved through the mechanism of patronage, thus incorporating these institutions into the body of the Saktina system as a means for further wealth extraction and as a mechanism to control the peasantry through a divine mandate. This was also incorporated into the aforementioned education system.
However, as the middle class amassed their own wealth, they seemed to be better at financing organised religion, shifting the institutions’ loyalty. As the nature of religion had been altered by its relationship to the Saktina class, religion in the capitalist era, once again, perpetuated elements of the previous system within the new framework.
A Broad Overview
So far, Jit has provided an outline of the nature of Saktina and how its economic, political and cultural characteristics developed whilst it was the prevalent socio-economic system.
Jit’s analysis focuses almost as much on the emergence of capitalism as it does on the Saktina system itself. Indeed, he often uses the Saktina framework as a means to interpret the fundamental economic and power dynamics that developed into the birth of the middle class and liberal capitalism, tracing the roots of exploitation of the working class to their origins and underscoring how little has changed in their material lives, despite the apparent progress made in liberal systems of governance.
To further examine the Saktina system’s foundations and characteristics, Jit later reflects on the origins of the system (both in Thailand and worldwide), as well as the transition from what he terms the ‘First Thai Communal System’ to the ‘Slave System’ and then finally, the transition from the ‘Slave System’ to the ‘Saktina System’. We will explore this in a later article.
Below are some words present in the original translation used hitherto. Here they are anglicised and with their meanings (not all have been used in this summary).
‘Phrai’ or ‘lek’ — serfs, labourers bonded to land, essentially agricultural slaves.
‘Thay’ — Freemen, similar to ‘phrai’ but were not bonded to specific pieces of land, possibly linked to the name ‘Thai’ referring to ‘free people’.
‘Suai’ — a Tax in Kind, where agricultural yields are given to Land-Lords by those working their land (more to come on this later in Jit’s section on Taxes).
‘Kadumphi’ — the bourgeoisie
‘Seriniyom’ — Liberalism
‘Thunniyom’ — capitalism
‘Naithun’ — a Capitalist
‘Kshatriya’ — essentially the ruling class (it can be used in place of ‘King’) this word comes from the second-highest Hindu caste.
‘Prachao paendin’ — Lord of the land, see ‘Kshatriya’.
‘Phrarajanankhet’ — ‘the Lord Raja’s Domain’, a combination of words meaning ‘Lord Raja’ and ‘arable land’, implying the relationship between political control of territory and economic control of land.
‘Khaluang’; ’jaomuang’; ’phuwa ratchakan muang’ — governors of Thai polities (I’m not sure if they are interchangeable)
‘Muang’ — a polity, essentially a city-state.
‘Phaphapwai’ — the obedient woman that Saktina men wanted to promote for their patriarchal desires