By K Kistnasamy & L Collen
Like the People of South Africa & Zimbabwe, Mauritians Confront “the land question”
In Southern Africa “the land question” looms large. After decades, even centuries, of being suppressed, the land question again and again rises right back up to the top of the agenda. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF was forced early on, by people’s land-hunger in a country where expropriation of the land was so recent in memory, to take up the question, however badly they did so. In South Africa, the ANC is finally being forced by popular pressure to take it up – and it looks as though it may be equally badly handled. Just confiscating land (from above) and dishing it out to party agents is not land reform so much as an ideological tactic for staying in power. In neither place is it part of a proper program to mobilize people to confront capital. In neither place is it part of a program for a kind of socialism that brings land and capital under democratic control.
In Mauritius, we in LALIT (a political party struggling for socialism) are placing the land question high on the political agenda, but in a completely different way from ZANU-PF and the ANC. There are other organizations in Mauritius that work towards restituting land to land-owning families who, in the past, lost their land to the big sugar estates. But LALIT sees the land question differently.
But first, let us start by building a base of common understandings, almost “definitions”.
Land, social and private property
To begin, here is a statement: “All people have, and must have, their lives to live.” Is this something we all agree on? In LALIT, we believe so. This is the high moral ground. This sees those around us as part of ourselves, and imagines the future for all humans, and makes the statement in a principled way. And it is not very ambitious.
It follows then that land, like capital, being what allows us to survive, must thus be owned and controlled by the totality of the people, not just by one class – a small class, at that. This is something that, when explained, almost everyone agrees with, too. And it demands a simple, basic point of clarification on one single concept to open up the possibility of reaching a shared understanding that we all agree upon. And the explanation exposes capitalism’s biggest con-trick, Private Property. Let’s unpack private property.
In reality, there are two totally different things that go into the term “private property” as it is defined under capitalism. They should have two distinct terms. Capitalist ideology, however, and this is the con-trick, conflates them into one.
Land and capital are one kind of “property” that is “private” under capitalism – when it ought not to be: it is the kind of “property” that is necessary for us all, the whole of the people, to survive. To live our lives we need it. So, it is social property. And historically it has, as it turns out, been common property for well over 9/10ths of human history. We have experience, therefore as a species, in taking care of it collectively. And it needs, in future, to be brought under democratic, social control once again. Just so that we can simply live our lives.
This has not happened anywhere in the world in any generalized sort of way. Not yet, anyway. And this is our program. To bring that kind of “private property” necessary for our survival, all of us, under democratic control.
Genuinely private property
By contrast, the things we use in our daily lives – a place to live, a bit of land that we can plant a few veggies, a fruit tree or two and some flowers on, food for our families, clothing, some tools and gadgets like a cell phone – are properly speaking “private property” and can happily remain private. Right-wing ideologues, to create a panic, used to say communists will “nationalize your mango tree” or “nationalize your tooth-brush”!
Today the land question comes up
When the working classes are told, “Sorry, there are no new jobs in agriculture, nor in industry, nor in fishing,” and that there may even be less jobs than before, then the question as to who controls decisions about how to use the land, including its water and its territorial waters and its minerals, come top of the political agenda. All of a sudden. And people see it easily.
So, the point of our program is not to “restore” land to its rightful private owners, no. Our aim is to gain collective, democratic control of the totality of large denominations of land. And we aim to do it by posing only questions that working people agree with – right now. So, it depends on the consciousness of working people, and a program that starts from where people are now.
When workers are told by the powers-that-be that there are “no jobs”, a penny drops. And this is so because a job, we realize in such times, is only “necessary” because we, human beings, have been ripped from the land that nurtured us. A handful of people – colonizers and local capitalists – have evicted the broad masses of peasants from the land, expropriated it from us all, and after offering jobs (coupled with threats of prison for not paying taxes) for a couple of hundred years, we are now told, “Sorry, there are no jobs anymore! Bad luck!”
In world terms, it is now common knowledge, which it certainly was not in the 1960s let alone in Marx’s time a hundred years earlier, that humanity lived some 200,000 years or so without classes, without stocks, without conflict between groups, and in relative plenty. There was no State, because there was no need for a State. (A State is only needed for one class to be able to dominate other large classes.)
We lived our lives collectively. Our defining feature as a species – our ability to use language for understanding the world – only exists in collectivity. Alone, we cannot speak. And language is our way of representing the outside world – and also our own internal feelings and thoughts – in our individual minds collectively. We are, by definition, collective creatures. Over the past 5,000 to 10,000 years, here and there all over the globe, there have been sedentary societies around agriculture and animal raising, which developed first stocks, then social classes relative to the stocks, and a form of State (at first around religion) to enforce the class or caste hierarchies and taxes due, and so on. And so, for well over 90% of our history, we did have a collective relationship to the land – and we managed it so well that we survived all those millennia. Two hundred thousand years, at least.
So, we can do it again.
And, it is no fluke that Marx began to become the first “Marxist” even before he knew about “capital”, when thinking about land and about the State. He was given an article to write on a new law being debated on whether it was illegal for peasants to pick up dried wood that fell on State land. Even today, doesn’t it blow your mind to think that it could be illegal for human beings to collect dried branches from land belonging to, whoever that is, the State? You can read the article by the very young Marx in “Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood” (1).
All this to say that, though capital is the key question, land is too, as part of capital and of its own right. So, the land question is always trying to raise its head. And when there are no jobs, it raises its head high.
The land is linked to basic needs
Today, world-wide, people do not have jobs. Generations ago, they were forced off the land that nurtured them. They often do not have convivial housing or even a house at all. They do not have food security, as families, nor often even as nations. So, where would, or could jobs, houses and food security come from? Well, one place is the land. And people realize it in no time at all.
The History of the Land Question in Mauritius
In Mauritius, it is easier and more difficult – at a national, as opposed to international level. We, the Mauritian working class (in the technical sense given above) were brought here to work, in particular to work the cane fields and the sugar mills, to transport the cane, then the raw sugar to the docks, and to load the sugar, and unload everything else that was imported. So, we expect work. The land that was snatched from us, Mauritian working people, was somewhere else – in Africa, Madagascar, India, Java – and we were snatched from the land – transported as slaves for generations, then as indentured labourers for more generations, for the most of us – and so we have no glorified past, on a national level, to look back to, so we have to demand work. What if the bosses don’t give it? What if you, the State that transported us, can’t give it? Well, then you, the State must make the bosses use their land to give us jobs. And if the State doesn’t or can’t, we will have to force it to, and if not, we will be obliged directly to force the bosses to create jobs or hand over the land. And we can only do this politically – overthrowing the State that refuses to do this minimal action of getting a means of survival by creating jobs, starting with land and moving to industry based on the land.
Workers worked on land that was originally allotted to Frenchmen demobilized after various French wars via the French East India Company, later nationalized during the French Revolution. So, land ownership was “private” except for Company land and has remained largely that way until today. What was Company land became French State property during the revolution in 1793, and became British State property in 1815 at the Capitulation Treaty during the Napoleonic Wars, and finally Mauritian State property at Independence in 1968. Throughout, the Franco-Mauritian land-owners have maintained their “guaranteed property rights” over the land. And in general, it is a taboo of almost religious status for “everyone” in the country to genuflect to this edict.
The working class in Mauritius – having formed itself around a rural proletariat of field workers and mill workers – has laboured under three “regimes”: one hundred years (say, 1720-1820) under the most draconian of all labour law, the Code Noir, or Slave Law. Rebellions and direct action like sabotage, cane burning, mill-wrecking, poisoning your master, and becoming a runaway, were the forms of labour protest most common. This regime was overthrown, not so much by the constant instability of rebellion and resistance, but because the rising class of capitalists in the metropolis of England wanted working people world-wide to be paid in money so that they could buy their pots and pans, needles and pins, cloth and sheeting, spoons and plates. The British bourgeoisie organized to abolish slavery by paying compensation to slave-owners (never to slaves). The amount was so huge that the British Treasurer recently tweeted that the loan taken from private banks had only been repaid by the British State in 2015. In Mauritius, from 1811 to 1850 Barclays and Blyth held three-quarters of the sugar estates’ capital investment of approximately 1,162,000 pounds. And the Mauritius Commercial Bank was set up just after the end of slavery and was the finance arm of the sugar bosses until recently, when each of the four remaining sugar conglomerates has set up its own bank as well.
So, the next one hundred years (say, 1820-1920) were, in Mauritius, as cane became ubiquitous with up to 303 sugar mills, under the hybrid regime of “Indenture” and the state imposed a hybrid legal framework that was the same for “immigrants and liberated slaves”, and gathered in a single volume or “anthology” by 1867 entitled Labour Laws of Mauritius: the regime involved paying workers one-half in rations, like under the Code Noir for slaves, and one-half in money form, like the wage slavery that would follow. So, modern capitalism could begin. And it was during this period, that there was “the great parcelization” of marginal agricultural land, creating out of overseers and job-contractors, some 50,000 small planters, mainly in the North, with important ideological and political consequences, and hundreds of quite large “planters without mills”. (3) This was the only “land reform” on any scale in Mauritian history, and it tied the planters into cane and sugar. And this is true until today, even as the small planters get ruined.
Organizing collectively was almost as difficult as in slave times. Indentured labourers were under a sort-of house arrest, in the sense they had to stay on the sugar estate to which they had been allotted for five years, without ever going off it without written permission. Indentured labourers and liberated slaves were no longer owned, but they did not yet own themselves, so to speak. But they were continuing to learn how to co-operate, whether in the field gangs, in the mills or on the docks. The strongest “will” nation-wide began to take form: the will for workers’ rights, a will for freedom. A proletarian will. In the North, however, there was a strong will for a small parcel of private land, in parallel.
So, by the time the third period of modern wage slavery dawned (say, 1920-2020), workers were rearing to go. Sugar mills had centralized, down to about 50 mills. About one-third of land was no longer in the hands of the oligarchs that controlled the mills; however, it was mostly the barren land in the drought-stricken, stony North.
In this period, there have been two main eras of working class political action: the 1930’s and the 1970’s. Both were movements led by the workers in cane and sugar and the dockers, who were, in large part, loading sugar.
By 1920, there were some 170,000 acres under cane, over three times what was under cane 100 years earlier. In the same time period, the working class had more than doubled. It grew three-fold, mainly due to massive immigration under indenture from India, but also through prisoners from India – for some offenses in India, you had a choice between death penalty and being sent as convict labour to Mauritius (2) – and through the liberation of slaves from illegal slave trade ships. So, the working class was large.
oIn a precursor to the first movement, in 1921 the first trade union was set up. It was illegal, of course. By 1924, there was a march of 800 rural cane workers on Port Louis, protesting about water. By 1934, there were mass meetings of cane and sugar workers together with the urban skilled workers. And by 1936, the working class, gelling as a class, passed a resolution for Mauritian Independence, set up a Labour Party, and in 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, held nation-wide strikes, and there were uprisings on all sugar plantations. Repression was always the riposte. Labourers were shot dead. In 1943, more strikes, generalized rebellions on the sugar estates, more shooting to death.
In the 1950s, the working class struggles were overtaken by the struggles of other intermediate classes, also blocked by the sugar barons. Two petty-bourgeois political groups, each around a newspaper, Advance and L’Express, did a take-over of the Labour Party, and Labour led Mauritius to Independence with a weakened working class, and supported by a communal party, the Comité Action Musulman and the rural populist Independent Forward Block. The sugar barons mobilized against Independence in the extreme right-wing Parti Mauricien Social Democrat, rallying mass communal support on a crude anti-Hindu basis (slogans like “No to wrap-around clothing!” “No to famine”, and later the white oligarchy ran a “black power” campaign through the populist Gaetan Duval, who was close to French fascist, Jean-Marie Le Pen. As this rearguard band felt they were losing, though they would frighten some 40% of people to vote against Independence, they managed to provoke “race wars”. There was violent communal conflict, triggered by gangs in the capital, Port Louis.
This was how Independence, in 1968, came in during a State of Emergency, with British Troops and all. It had to be at mid-day instead of midnight. There was a dusk to dawn curfew.
This was how Independence which workers had hoped would bring land reform, sugar estate nationalization, and freedom to forage animal feed and wood on all land, led to very little of this. One sugar estate, Rose-belle, was nationalized. It was put under identical management to the other 21 estates. So, the working class knew there was unfinished business.
Very soon after Independence, the Labour Party invited the sugar barons’ party, the PMSD, into Government. The French Ambassador symbolically united the hands of the leaders of the two parties, and so there was a coalition of the pro- and anti-Independence parties. The end result was not unlike the GNU in South Africa.
The birth of a mass movement
But in Mauritius, this coalition left both a class and a political vacuum, that the working class, a new wave of trade unions, and the new party, the MMM (Mouvement Militant Mauricien) rapidly filled. The new slogan was “Race struggle, no! Class struggle!” There were localized strikes and demonstrations all over. Once again, the working class gelled as a class.
In 1971, a massive general strike was so successful that it led to a new State of Emergency and to the imprisonment without trial of about 100 of the leaders of the working class.
And this was the beginning of a decade of mass movements. Mass movements and repression. More mass movements.
After the nation-wide students strike movement that culminated in a march on Port Louis in May 1975, the biggest strike movement began to build. What would later become LALIT, the monthly magazine, Lalit de Klas, was born in the wake of this movement. The democratic structures around the distribution of the magazine – an editorial board elected by distributers who were working class grassroots leaders – ended up being the way in which the labourers all and other workers all over the country, from sugar estates, in the docks and in transport, would develop the common platform that the August 1979 strike would be based upon, as well as the will to socialism that the nascent organization kindled.
So, just after the Government had devalued the Mauritian currency, following IMF-World Bank draconian conditions, causing fury in the working class, on 7 August 1979, the strike began.
All 21 sugar mills stopped working. Workers showed who makes things work. By not working.
Labourers from all 21 sugar estates stayed home, going only to meetings of strike committees that grew up everywhere. And the dockers had promised that, if the sugar labourers could hold out one week, they would come in. They did. As did the transport workers, soft drinks workers, municipal workers, tea plantation workers. You name it. There was a pre-revolutionary spirit in the air.
The culmination of the movement was in a hunger strike (no food, no water) of the leaders of the strike movement. Then, groups of workers converged on Port Louis every day in support, and the situation became insurrectionary. The riot police and then the Special Mobile Force, the army-like part of the police, cordoned off the Company Gardens, where the hunger strikers had set up a tarpaulin cover. People, who came from the country-side, when faced with bayonets and guns, turned around and at the same time turned over all vehicles in Port Louis. Anti-riot shutters had to be brought down fast.
The Government capitulated on the 4th day, when the health of the leaders began to deteriorate. It negotiated, fulfilling many of the demands of the strike: No sugar mill closures. Amend the Labour Law to allow strikes. Grant union recognition for sugar mill workers and cane field workers. No workers to be sacked for going on strike. And, if the bosses would not take them back, the Government would give them equivalent work in Government. All this was codified in something called Lakor 23 Ut, the August 23rd Agreement. It is still known today by this name.
The Government did not respect the Agreement. So, during one whole year, anger simmered. In September 1980, the working class taking up where it had left off, mobilized around a new hunger strike of working class leaders – this time drinking water. The mass movement saw marches from all over the main Island converging on the trade union headquarters where the leaders were on hunger strike. As the mobilization became red-hot, it coincided with a nation-wide pilgrimage around a working class “saint”, Pere Laval, and pilgrims stopped to bless the living “saints” on hunger strike, in a kind of serendipity, on their way to and from the tomb of the “saint”. (The “saint” is in quotation marks because the Vatican has not totally beatified him). Anyway, the movement, which involved massive participation of women workers, led to victory on all demands.
And the next year, new mobilization followed. Women from the Mauritian outer islands of Chagos and LALIT women began demonstrating for the closing down of the military base on one of the Chagos islands, Diego Garcia, for the de-colonization of Chagos and it re-unification with the rest of Mauritius, and for the right to return for Chagossians. (This struggle has, to jump forward a moment, culminated in 2018, with the Mauritian State finally being forced by peoples’ mobilization to propose a UN General Assembly resolution against Britain which it won 94-15 last year, to put a case before the UN’s International Court of Justice this year. But we have not yet managed to force the Mauritian State to call for the closure of the US military base the British have harboured there.)
The second era of working class mobilization in the 1970s led to the electoral elimination of the two post-Independence parties, the Labour Party and the PMSD. The MMM, which had by then been taken over by petty-bourgeois currents, and its leader Paul Bérenger had already, much like Nelson Mandela, agreed to IMF-World bank conditions, together with its petty-bourgeois electoral ally, won all the seats in Parliament in the 1982 general elections. This was less than two years after the 1979-80 mass working class mobilization. So, a left-leaning party got voted in, massively at that. But the leadership had from about one year before the elections veered right. This caused a split in the Government within 9 months of the election. And working class mobilization cooled.
So, still there was no land reform.
By the 1990s, when the neo-liberal push was at its height world-wide, the bourgeoisie and the Government thought they could, once again, try to impose IMF and World Bank conditions. This led to the formation of a tentative third era of struggle around the All Workers’ Conference. This was a unification of the entire trade union movement, at the level of the masses of delegates of the unions, together with Ledikasyon pu Travayer, a workers’ education organization close to LALIT. But All Workers, although it prevented the implementation of IMF and World Bank structural adjustment conditions, was only ever a defensive movement. The movement managed to hold on to working class gains like free education, free health care, universal pensions, and food subsidies. But it remained defensive. And it had the second problem: trade union leaders blocked the mobilization of the broad masses of worker members. They could permit their delegates to gather in one movement. But mobilization of their members proved too much of a threat to leaders, who were in place more through bureaucracy than the kind of democracy that had permitted the 1979 strike movement. Some of the leaders thus sabotaged All Workers quite openly.
So, all this gives an idea of the militancy and the power of the Mauritian proletariat until about 2000.
But objective conditions have weakened the working class. There has been drastic centralization and mechanization in the sugar industry. The massive lay-offs of dockers and then cane and sugar workers have weakened the working class. The textile factories that had created 100,000 jobs over the 1980s, have become computerized, and have down-sized their labour force. Unemployment is rife. Official statistics only serve to mask this. Housing problems are acute. Again, official statistics are used to hide this. The bosses, when workers mobilize, bring in workers from Bangladesh, China and Madagascar, workers who do not have the demands of a family and social life. Mauritian workers find their way to work legally and illegally in France, Italy, Australia, Ireland, Canada and the UK. Mauritians are working in sugar industries all over Africa. So, the bosses have used technical advances to strengthen themselves, and to weaken the working class that produced the advances.
So, all this means that the land issue has become central.
The Struggle for Land is a Political Struggle
In the case of Mauritius, the land includes the sea – 2.3 million square kilometers of it – making Mauritius 19th biggest country in the world. So, we turn to the land (and the sea) for jobs, housing, and food.
As we have seen, in Mauritius, from colonial times, Mauritius was a mono-crop economy: cane and sugar mills. The social organization of labour was a model for the industrial revolution in England, and remained in place from slavery, through indenture and until the 21st Century. And, though the economy has diversified into tourism, textiles and all kinds of “services” from tertiary education to accounting, from data processing to call centres, yet the arable land has remained under cane, indeed it is still a mono-crop situation.
The sugar estates have become, if anything, more concentrated in fewer hands.
And when, with the World Trade Organization rules, protected markets for sugar became illegal, the sugar estate bosses began to replace some sugar, not by agricultural diversification and new production for food security and for export, but by diversifying within sugar (to ethanol and burning cane left-overs for electricity) and parceling up their land under various Integrated Resort Schemes, Property Development Schemes, whereby luxury villas around marinas and golf clubs are built and sold off, with Government subsidies of all kinds, for the world’s rich parasites to “invest in”. This way, the State announces massive Foreign Direct Investment, when there is none: there is merely the selling off of the land.
This has become so serious that LALIT is putting it on the political agenda.
Ruling class ideology – by conflating “social property” like land and capital with private things – has built an entire edifice of “rights”. They are called “property rights”. In fact, so ingrained are these “rights”, that socialists have had to take up the rear-guard action of fighting for “human” rights. Indeed, in Mauritius and elsewhere, when slavery was declared illegal by the relatively new bourgeois British State, the compensation was paid, as we have seen, to those who had the property rights over slaves: the owners! The humans, who were, in Mauritius, the ancestors of today’s working class i.e. the slaves, were the property. So, this is a sharp reminder that, when we struggle only for “rights” within existing social structures and not also to overthrow capitalism and create a new society, we are struggling for no more than what “property” had before us, no more. The rights of capitalists exist essentially in the “rights” to “their property”, that is to say the social property they call private property – even when the “property” is human beings. Just fighting for rights does not constitute a dignified political program for socialism: human rights are better than nothing. They do represent the gains we managed to put into legal or bureaucratic form within the present State when we, the social forces rising up against domination, got too tired, at the final stages of the last big challenge we mounted, to continue the struggle and so we settled for what the dominators offer in exchange for our return to submission: this right or that right. And as for these supposed “rights”, we can only get them enforced, depending upon a high degree of continued mobilization! This, even if they have been codified. They are not really “protected” but merely tolerated by the dominating classes until they can be reversed, the minute we are weakened – by technology, by war, by natural disaster, by exhaustion from class war, by ethnic divisions, by the sex war, by illness, or whatever.
The “private ownership” of land and capital, though an economic reality, needs to be challenged politically. (We use the terms “capital and land” rather than “capital including land” in this article, because we are writing about land, and also because land is different in that it is part of nature, just as we are. Capital, including some kind of land, is nature-that-has-been-worked-upon by past and present generations of workers. It is dead labour. Whereas, land exists in nature as well as in capital.)
This is because those who own (through past expropriation) the land and capital are not the only, or even main ones, enforcing this ownership. There is a whole state apparatus enforcing the “private” nature of this social property on those who do not have it. It is called the bourgeois State because it protects the bourgeoisie and its expropriated social property. At the end of this article we will try to unpack the two sections of the bourgeoisie that we find in post-colonial societies like Mauritius, and like Zimbabwe and South Africa and their relationship to the post-colonial State.
So, it is illegal to challenge land-ownership or the control of capital in any other way than politically. You can form a band and try to take over the land someone has expropriated in the past, but you will hit a barrage of obstacles: trespassers will be prosecuted, for a start, and you’ll soon be branded a thief which can change your status from citizen to prisoner, your very freedom becoming threatened. In Mauritius, a few years ago a worker who had not been paid for weeks, took a bundle of coriander from the plantation he worked in as part-payment in kind, and informed his boss of this. His boss went to the police, and a magistrate ended up sentencing the worker to three months prison. Jail. The worker had broken the cardinal law. Prison was no doubt a warning to all working people. The incident shows how officers of the State sometimes have an uncannily accurate idea of their role. The only way that the taboo on this kind of challenge to the private confiscation of social property (like land and capital) can be broken is through building up massive political mobilization of the vast “majority” of the people, i.e. of the oppressed classes.
You can also at the same time, perhaps, try co-operatives. But the legal framework under capitalism for co-operatives is such that they are forced to become a sub-set of the private business model, and will never be able to pose a threat to the capitalist State, as a strategy. They are useful to show that things can be run on a non-hierarchical, non-private ownership basis – which should be obvious anyway, were not the dominant ideology so strong as to meld private ownership of social property into the order of the “natural universe”.
So, again, the only way to build up a challenge is political mobilization of all the oppressed classes. (Which does not exclude some co-operatives, nor some physical taking of land, as part of the political mobilization.)
Every Political Struggle is a Class Struggle
But, mobilization needs to be based on seeing, studying, analyzing all the classes in society, and their conflicting interests, so that we know which classes have an interest in supporting this idea that everyone has, and must have, a life to live by action. In other words, we have to know which classes to mobilize. This is the first part of a proper political program. A class analysis.
Given that we see that there are basically two kinds of property helps us understand the objective nature of the two main social classes under capitalism – a reality veiled by this conflation of social and private property into capitalism’s sacred “Private Property” (A Sugar Estate and a toothbrush, both).
That first kind of property, which is social property disguised as “private” property under capitalism – land, and capital (which also includes land) – has, over past decades and centuries, been expropriated from humankind as a whole, and grabbed by a powerful segment or class of humanity. Those who own capital, and can live off it over time, are “the capitalist class”. The inheritance laws left over from feudal caste systems keep this wealth that ought to be social “in the family” of the owning class over generations. So, they do not need to work to survive. They own social property.
Those who do not, and who own only a few (or even very many) private things, are not capitalists. They will, as families, not survive for more than, say, a year without one amongst them, selling their lives by the hour, the day, the week or the month, in exchange for a price, called a salary. People in this class may be forced to take a loan and set up a small enterprise when there is no employment – and this enterprise will, in the case of Mauritius, go bust at the rate of 80% within four years of its founding, thus hurling them back into relying on a salary – if they are lucky enough to get someone to pay them by the hour or month or whatever – even as they are now landed with a debt to boot. This second social class is, whatever it might like to flatter itself into thinking, the working class. They, or we, sell our labour power, physical or mental, which exists only within our “time” on earth – in other words we sell a part of our lives, say one-third – in exchange for a salary and, if we are lucky, for a few deferred payments in terms of pensions and/or social security. Mostly, we sell it to the capitalist class. Or to its State, the bourgeois State, or one of its sub-contractors or charitable institutions funded by the bourgeoisie and/or the State. As the different working classes join behind a political challenge to the private ownership of social property, they become a working class. This class is always in a state of becoming a class – breaking down the ideological and physical-seeming barriers of unequal pay, unequal treatment by the State on grounds of race, skill, sex, nationality. In the long run it is a world-wide class. And today, for the first time in human history, the working class world-wide is a vast majority.
That is indeed good news.
Objective nature of class
So, this analysis makes us realize that it is the working class that will support a program to wrest from the capitalists their monopoly control over the means of survival of all of us – the land and capital. The working class, whatever it calls itself, has an interest in supporting a program to challenge the monopoly control of the whole of the peoples’ means of survival. Terms like “middle class” are merely tags or descriptions. They cannot compete for legitimacy with the term “working class”, which is part of an analysis of an objective relationship to the means of survival – capital and land. Either you own/control it, or you don’t – in which case you are forced, for survival, to depend upon selling yourself to those who do control it, either directly or to their State, or to the State’s sub-contractors of different kinds. Today, in countries like Mauritius, Zimbabwe and South Africa, there are more and more people employed by NGO-like organisms, as everything the bourgeois State did gets contracted out, privatized and so on. The social services then get put in the hands of non-accountable NGO-type organisms funded either by the national State, some imperialist State, or Corporate Social Responsibility money from the bosses, often cycled through a pre-capitalist form like a religious body.
Classes in Post-Colonial Societies
For any political program to gain popular democratic control over land and capital, it is important to know of particular features of the capitalist class, and the land-owning classes, in one’s country. And post-colonial States have one feature that it is important to be conscious of.
The bourgeois State in ex-colonies has certain powers – inherited from the previous Colonial State – over all classes. The bourgeois State in European States does not have the same power over its bourgeoisie. In, say, France or Britain, the bourgeoisie set up its State. The bourgeoisie predates the bourgeois State, and does not take orders from it easily. In Mauritius, the colonial State, which became the post-colonial State of today, has residual power (inherited 50 years ago from the British State at Independence) to impose certain things on all classes, including the bourgeoisie.
This extra power creates the potential for the development of a class that does not exist in the same way in, say, Europe, and that we, in LALIT, call “the State bourgeoisie”. We do not mean people employed by the State, nor those who get cushy jobs in State-owned electricity providers or other Government-run institutions. We are talking rather about the post-colonial State being able to organize its legislation, its regulations, its tenders, and contracts in ways that favour a lower echelon of an existing, if modest, bourgeoisie, or petty-bourgeoisie (in production – like agriculture, industry, transportation – or in commerce) and permit it to catapult itself into the proper, big bourgeoisie – alongside the old colonial oligarchs – even if as a fragile class. In other words, political power is used to favour a relatively humble bourgeoisie, to help it join the big bourgeoisie. This section of the bourgeoisie (as it is always being created) posits itself as a fine ally for the working class, and it is easy to be drawn into an alliance with it. The danger is that the net effect of the constant creation and re-creation of this new bit of the bourgeoisie is that it, in fact, increases the size of the bourgeoisie in terms of numbers of people and diversity of the class, thus tending to stabilize the whole of the bourgeoisie, and to have the working class rely crumbs offered by a wily pro-capitalist program. The two halves of the bourgeoisie do, however, continue to hold skirmishes all the time, of course. Some supposed “left” groups become wily, too: their leaders suck up to one or other part of the bourgeoisie in exchange for political gains for themselves. This is possible in Mauritius because all parties, including bourgeois parties from both halves of the bourgeoisie, are and have to be, in rhetoric that is, “anti-capitalist”, “socialist”, “for the working class”, “for the welfare state”, whatever their genuine class interests are. They cannot get elected on any other rhetoric.
But the two halves of the bourgeoisie, however much they hold skirmishes between them, and whatever their pro-worker rhetoric, they never challenge the monopoly control over land and private social property. Never. Not even in words. This is conscious.
In South Africa, too, there is the same kind of State bourgeoisie. Even the Nationalist Party used the State Apparatus in this way from 1948 onwards, and this quite consciously. For example, laws were passed to favour SANLAM in insurance, or Marketing Boards in agriculture that gave medium-sized farmers the guaranteed income they needed for getting loans to buy equipment, to catapult them into the bourgeoisie. To do this the Nationalist Party made up its Historic Bloc by an alliance of devastated small Afrikaner farmers and unemployed working class Afrikaner masses, Afrikaner intellectuals behind the leadership of Afrikaner capitalists; so it built up electoral power within the broad masses of Afrikaners in the interests of a class of capitalists blocked by British monopoly capital and for whom the Nationalists, once in power, would promote to the status of a new, rising part of the bourgeoisie. This meant that the old British-linked bourgeoisie always had to struggle to maintain a favourable balance-of-intra-class forces with the new State bourgeoisie. And for the Nationalists’ plan to work, they had to keep the electorate to “whites only” as long as they possibly could – which they did until they could no longer, because of political mobilization. Throughout, however, and despite the historical times when the State could nationalize, could protect local industry, could create monopolies at will, the Nationalists remained under the power of the monopoly capitalists with links to Britain. And when mass mobilization threatened this monopoly capitalist class, they were prepared to negotiate what was, to all intents and purposes, a class suicide.
When the ANC took over, it, too, has built an Historic Bloc around all classes while promoting black capitalists – to the limited extent possible under the reactionary neo-liberal rule that coincided with the 1994 freedom from Apartheid. People think, rightly of course, that it is better to be under the rule of the ANC than under the direct rule of old monopoly capitalists. But it is capitalist rule, nonetheless. And, for working class rule, and to build socialism, a political program for socialism has to take on both sub-classes in the bourgeoisie: the monopoly capitalists and the various forms of State bourgeoisie.
Programs need to address the issue of how much better off you are, in the working class, being exploited by x rather than by y.
So, fighting against exploitation becomes the real issue. We want jobs for all, becomes the issue. We want housing for all. We want food security for all. For this, we realize we have to oppose two factions of the bourgeoisie: the old monopoly capitalists even as they already absorb much of Afrikaner capital, and the ANC-backed State-propelled bourgeoisie, even as it is being absorbed really fast in these times of neo-liberalism, into monopoly capitalism. It takes a dialectical mind to keep a strategy in focus against this shifting alliance within the bourgeoisie, as the working class opposes the whole bourgeoisie.
In Mauritius, from before Independence, the Labour Party “in power” made use of permits and protective legislation, tenders and contracts, nominations and even definitions, in order to favour sectors of the emerging bourgeoisie in its double-barreled electoral base: around the Advance group (Ganee Moossa, Ramdenee, Kalachand, etc.) and the L’Express group (Leal, Rochecouste, etc.) as universal suffrage was gradually accorded by the colonial authorities as it gave in to mobilization.
In Mauritius, since Independence, the Historic Bloc, now falling apart, was built around an alliance on sugar. So, the old sugar oligarchs, allied with the medium-sized planters, the small planters and the unions of the sugar industry in particular, with the two Press groups as ideologues, has ruled – with a pretense that this Bloc is opposing the oligarchs, while in fact being led by them! This means we really need to have an analysis of this on-going production of a series of new State bourgeoisies, catapulted up into and often absorbed by, the old monopoly capitalists. And to know that they are not allies in the struggle for socialism.
Political Struggle, Program and Political Parties
Now that we have clarified questions of private and social property, classes and the state, the post-colonial state and the nature of the land question in Mauritius, how do we fight to challenge this private control over what is social property, i.e. land and capital? How do we fight to control merely our means of survival? To be able simply to live our lives.
The crucial role of political parties
We have said it has to be through political means. And the instrument for political struggle is a political party. And a good political party, one that can challenge this private control over social property must be based on a political program. “Values”, though a fashion at the moment, are just not good enough. Everyone has them. Or says they have. Vague ideas and fluffy concepts will get us nowhere. Rules and regulations will not either. Things like two-mandate limits, or regulations whereby the State controls party funds do not constitute “a program”, nor is belief in “the rule of law” a program except one in favour of the status quo; these are all mere proposed political rules and regulations. What we need is a program about the real world: about land, about jobs, about food, about houses. That is what is the crux of a good political party. And that is what is so rare today – a party program. Depending on the gains such a party makes, and on its internal democracy, the political rules will be established by everyone to suit these gains.
What is a Program
And what is a Program? It is not just words. It is not just resolutions voted at a Congress, and put on “Hold”. And yet, a political program is also something simple and basic: it is a common understanding of the tasks before us, based on an analysis of the reality we live in, together with guidelines as to a strategy, or strategies, for moving towards victory in these tasks, all based on analysis of the classes in society, and bearing in mind, as we go, that our aim is to gain democratic control for us all over that social property that is now still firmly under monopoly control of a small class – the bourgeoisie, which has a State that maintains that it is “private property” and maintains the fiction that this is a good thing. Bourgeois ideology, in fact, maintains the fiction that “nobody owes you a living” – only those that live off “their” private land and “their” private capital have “a living” as a right. This right resides in their property rights. We, all the others, have to beg to be able to sell part of our lives to them – in exchange for money. Just to live our lives. Remember our assumption is that “All people have, and must have, their lives to live.”
No job creation, no food security and not even land for proper housing nor amenities for the people? This is just not good enough. And people are now beginning to see what’s been happening and to say “no”. The land must be used to create work, food for here and for export, and housing. And so a program begins to emerge:
Our program and our demands
It’s obvious. So, our first demand, in our program, is simple – the land must be used to create jobs:
– Our Program demands that land must be used to create jobs. We demand that the State refuse development certificates, or any other permits, if the owner of the land does not create lots of jobs. The State must create jobs by forcing the land-owners (first through permit-granting or permit-withholding, and taxes or tax cuts) to plant food crops that need agricultural workers, and simultaneously forcing the bosses to set up factories for the preservation/transformation of these crops, for which industrial workers will need to be taken on. Simultaneously the land-owners must be “encouraged” to set up work-units to plan end-product transportation, and markets in the country and outside, and to develop these, and then to take on knowledgeable people to work on phasing out pesticides and introducing small industries to support proper soil care instead of just buying chemicals. The State will have to assure training facilities for all this. All applications by land-owners for useless ways of using land – like concreting land up for villas for millionaires, like making water-greedy golf-courses for rich men of the world to play on, or like building gated communities for those who want to live outside of society as mere parasites, or “developing” luxury tourism, should not be permitted on any arable land, or land that can be developed to sustain agriculture of any kind. Land not suitable for agriculture must be developed as popular natural parks, and to set up such nature parks, if the farmers do not or cannot do this, the State must take on workers – to care for the land, water, flora and fauna – and gain social control of the land.
This demand will get nowhere without conscious mobilization building up around the program. The homeless, as well as the job-less and under-employed, must be organized around the demand for jobs on the land, and on land-related industries.
The land must be used for housing
– Our program, secondly, demands simultaneous construction of housing for all workers in the newly job-rich production on the land. Land will have to be ceded by the bosses for this. This housing must include land for growing a few vegetables, a fruit tree or two, and flowers for each family. And it must include a social centre for each block or circle of houses, a playground for little children for each micro-neighbourhood, one for bigger kids, and football, volleyball and basketball courts, tennis courts, for adults for each larger area – not golf-courses for the few. Young people who come of age must have the assurance of a studio of some sort so that the minute there is any sign of conflict within the family, s/he can move out. Single parents must be given cheaper housing.
A movement needs to be built up, when people in housing difficulties and homeless people come together and demand that the Government stop subsidizing the capitalists in their construction, for example, of gated communities – and direct all its effort to social housing. People in housing difficulties know only too well that they also need jobs, and secure jobs at that, so they will be able to join the demand for jobs-from-the-land.
The land must be used for food security
– We demand, thirdly, that the State encourage the bosses who own land to choose useful food crops – and to steer away from large scale, industrially produced flowers, sugar cane, tea, coffee and so on, just for export. Food crops that produce grain for milling, fresh vegetables, vegetables for preservation and transformation, dairy produce and animal feed, vegetable oil that is not palm oil, should all be encouraged by the State. Food security, or lack of it, must become a shared consciousness. And this means political mobilization.
Other industries and services will obviously be built upon these foundations.
If the bosses refuse
Now, what if the land-owners refuse to create employment? What if they refuse to cede land for housing? What if they refuse to consider food security in their decision-making? Then the State must be forced to give more incentives and be stricter on permits to parcel up land for sale for projects for the rich. It’s so simple. If they still refuse, then the Government must force them to lease part of their land (in Mauritius this can be interline cropping in-between lines of cane) for a nominal sum of rent money to landless people who group together in co-operatives to produce food crops, while the State sets up the preserving and transforming factories to buy produce at guaranteed minimum prices. If none of this works, after massive political mobilization, then there needs to be some form of nationalization, but it must be democratically controlled – not bureaucratically controlled.
The land must be used for the good of the whole people. This means jobs. This means houses. This means food. As the basis for further social development.
How LALIT approaches the daily struggle for land
LALIT’s way of working on the land question is that when people come to see us about, or rise up against, under-employment or bad housing, we organize them together to demand jobs and housing, and at the same time, we recognize that the role of a political program is to link these demands to a broader, rational program for making the demands come true. This means a program demanding that the State force big land-owners to take on people for work; this means the program is consciously limiting the meaning of “private” when referring to land, so that “private”, when it goes with large tracts of land, is not just “private property” but also the collective means of survival. You can have it only if you create jobs for all of us. And if the land owners don’t create jobs, the program demands that the State commandeer some of the land for the purpose of creating jobs. This may be through forcing the land-owner to lease out part of his land to those with knowledge of agriculture grouped together in co-operatives. It may be through direct appropriation of the land for agricultural and food-industry-related jobs with the Government paying the land-owner a nominal rent. One of the few Constitutional gains of the 1979 and 1980 mass workers’ mobilizations was an amendment allowing expropriation of private (social) property, which the Independence Constitution left by the British State had made well-nigh impossible. And, anyway, if the bosses are recalcitrant, or the Government refuses to apply the program, well then, by that time, the people must be ready to create their own jobs by direct action as part of a revolution, challenging private property outright.
This is the way, we start from where people are today, and we build a shared understanding of how this future may develop, if we work at it together and if we remain committed to our shared program, as it develops. This work requires a political party that functions democratically – ideas moving from regional branches to the central elected organization – and back again. It means free expression within the party. It means a certain amount of constant give-and-take of ideas around the main program. It means developing our own personal maturity, as our program develops its maturity.
And it means, in our case, that we have set up Joint Committees – that are neighbourhood based. Our party branch in an area, during the course of a local mobilization on an issue, sees if it is possible to set up a “Joint Committee” with inhabitants of that locality. So one such committee, for example, is called “Joint Committee of Richelieu Housing Estate Inhabitants and LALIT’s Western Regional”. This sounds a mouthful, but in action everyone knows exactly what it is.
When people are protesting against yet another gated community, or Integrated Resort Scheme, there too, we hold meetings, where a joint local structure between LALIT and inhabitants plan not just protests but also what we, the people living near there, would do with that land instead, had we control over its use. And we demand that Government gives permits for that kind of development not the gated community or IRS that the sugar bosses are setting up. So, people conceptualize the land (and the sea) around them as resources that are, should be, and could be, collective. And that one day will be collectively controlled. That is the program. To give an example of how quickly this happens. In a coastal village called Baie du Cap, villagers were protesting against an IRS being set up by a joint venture of local sugar estate bosses and some French capitalists, and over the course of a year or so, we held regular meeting called “Joint Baie du Cap Inhabitants and LALIT (Western Region) Committee”, as well as bigger gatherings of everyone in the neighbourhood for forums, petitions, and public meetings. Then, when we got to the time when we would put our heads together to plan what to do with the 300 acres or so of land, one young man said, “But, … but, that is the sugar bosses’ land!” And so we said, “Yes”, but it’s not his to do what he pleases with. He has to create jobs. That’s our program, isn’t it? To use the land to create jobs and housing and food security? So, what do we think could create jobs around here on that much land?” we ask. Well, they all knew. And gave ideas of what used to grow on what land, therefore could again grow, how it could be preserved and transformed, what kinds of factories that could can both fish and vegetables, in twin plants, what maintenance facilities would be necessary, and what kind of sports could be hosted, and what jobs even that sports might create. Within 30 minutes, the same young man who had been so shocked that we dared so much as talk about what to do with the land belonging to the sugar estate, said, “You know we could use another 100 acres or so that belongs to another boss, at the river mouth. It’s ideal sheltered, brackish, water for growing young fish and young octopus.” In fact, a LALIT member found an old book that gave minute detail on what was planted in that area in 1812. People like fishermen and labourers, who are not much interested in books, were suddenly very interested.
Consciousness allows us to think what we could get the Government to do so as to force the land-owner act so as to create work. So, that’s what we propose. Soon people say, naturally, “but … the Government won’t listen to us” or “but …. the bosses won’t listen to the Government”, or they say both. And then, we have to think up contingency plans – together. This “What if it doesn’t work?” becomes the propeller of the program. Experience teaches us to differentiate between someone wasting our time, a local agent sent by a pro-capitalist political party or someone in the boss’s pay, as opposed to someone genuine, someone who is part of that important section of the working class, its avant-garde (always hesitant to act rashly, so experienced are they, and so apparently “rearguard” during the downturns of the class struggle) that is genuinely preparing to act.
In a coastal village, there are also fishermen and women. So then LALIT people present might mention how young people, like the children of fisher people, who love and understand the sea, instead of going and working like near-slaves on luxury liners, could get work on a Government-owned fishing vessel. Or the Government could inform bosses with capital that it is encouraging investment in high-sea fishing vessels and various preservation and transformation industries attached to these, instead of in more villas for the rich – because fishing creates more jobs, and assures food security. How come Mauritius hasn’t got a fishing industry? we ask. How come ships from France, Spain and South Korea fish here? Are local bosses just lazy in their thinking? So, the land issue is linked to the issue of the sea. LALIT’s Southern Regional and fishermen and fisherwomen have set up a dynamic “joint committee” that produced, inter alia, with a Fishers’ Charter, a fine program. (4)
These localized actions in the Joint Committees, however, do not constitute, in themselves the totality of political action. They need to be combined with working towards national-level demands, petitions, and protests to various parts of the State. This then becomes the way of learning where power resides – not just in class terms, but also within the State. So, for example, on the issue of housing with asbestos. The Government has decided to replace the asbestos housing – even though the housing units were sold off to individual owners, and in many cases the land, too, is owned by the inhabitants of the house – and the State has even voted a budget to demolish-and-build. But the State has not done anything to make this happen. So, the various Joint Committees (local housing estate and local LALIT branch, like, to name one of a dozen, the Joint Telfair and LALIT East Region) in many of the 59 housing estates that still have asbestos houses, write to the Minister of Housing. When he does not reply, they get together, and unite with people living in other forms of dangerous housing sold to individual families by the State (e.g. without proper upright concrete columns), and put a case before the Ombudsperson for Children. She has opened enquiries and sent her officers to inspect, and in May 2018 sent a report to the Minister concerned. Meanwhile, night vigils with candles around banners painted by inhabitants, denouncing “dangerous housing” begin to become the focus for local processions in the evenings. The same banner then gets taken in a mini-demonstration to the MP when he comes to consult his Constituency – this showing the huge value of the Constituency system. And when the movement gets strong enough, LALIT informs the Press and private radio stations, who take it up nationally. And there is the groundwork done if there is need for a big demonstration, nation-wide.
And so, that is how we work.
Today, the trade union movement is mobilizing, at leadership level so far, against a new attempt by the State, under IMF and World Bank impetus, to privatize water. The same issue that caused the first big march of workers in 1924. In LALIT, we are working to broaden the issue from just “water” to popular democratic control over land, including its water.
Land is central to the struggle for socialism
The urgency of a political program to oppose the entire bourgeoisie, and to wrest democratic control over the land, as well as over capital produced by past generations of workers, grows as the planet suffers more and more from the pollution and pillage that are the consequence of the logic of private ownership of land and capital. Just as our planet is not private property, but everyone’s social property. So land and capital must be. This way we will all have our lives to live. This way we will no longer be slaves to capitalists’ private control over our survival.
Kisna Kistnasamy and Lindsey Collen
(2) Convicts in the Indian Ocean: Transportation from South Asia to Mauritius, 1815-53), by Clare Anderson, Macmillan, 2000.
(3) Studies in the Political Economy of Mauritius, M.D. North-Coombes, Mahatma Gandhi Institute, 2000.