Challenging the Present Order: Exemplary Forerunners for Us to Emulate Today

Dayan Jayatilleka, Island, 24 November 2017, where the title reads A Lankan left project: Why Sri Lanka needs a left option”

article_imageCastro , Lenin , Dharmapala , Puran Appu

“Nationalism is not our essential idea, although we do love our homeland dearly. We consider ourselves internationalists…”(Fidel Castro, Economy 98, July 3rd 1998 speech)

“…We’re not very nationalistic. We’re patriots but we’re not very nationalistic…” (Fidel Castro, Talks with US and French journalists, 1983, pp. 34-5)

“We internationalist revolutionaries always say…humanity comes before our country!”
(Fidel Castro Speaks, ed. James Petras p159)

We need a Left alternative because there are certain challenges, some tasks, some projects, crucially important ones, that no one else can be expected to undertake, be they UNP, SLFP, JO, SLPP or TNA. These are the tasks of social justice and national unification. Sri Lanka must become a country in which there is social justice and fair-play. It must also become a country in which a genuinely Sri Lankan identity is fostered and national reconciliation and integration takes place by purely voluntary means, from below. Only a Left alternative can do this because only the Left has those values.

No UNP government will stand for social justice, and even if Sajith Premadasa leads it, it may only ensure a measure of social welfare and equity. As for the SLFP, it will either imitate the UNP or the JO. Taken together or separately, the SLFP and the JO-SLPP see only the ‘national’ and not the ‘social’.

For the SLFP-JO-SLPP the ‘national’ is the social and is the sole dimension of the social. It’s all Jathika, or in its longer version, Rata-Jathiya-Aagama (country-nation-religion), and hardly Janatha/Mahajana (people/masses). The ‘national’ is defined in ethnic, ethnocentric or ethno-religious communitarian terms. Thus Southern populism is ethno-populism or ethno-religious populism.

With President Ranasinghe Premadasa long dead—something else we owe the Tigers and all those who supported and still fail to denounce them–only a Left formation will perceive things in terms of social justice, irrespective of, and cutting across, ethnicity and religion.

As for nation-building, it cannot be successfully undertaken by the UNP, because its multiculturalism, which is always a good thing, is undermined by its cosmopolitanism, minoritarianism, wartime history of appeasement of separatism and terrorism, and pro-Western imperialist stance. This whole package and profile generate a Southern backlash which makes it impossible to proceed with building a unified nation and a Sri Lankan identity.

The SLFP-JO-SLPP bloc is the flip side of that coin. It kowtows to a quasi-theocratic notion of the Sri Lankan state and polity. Its notion of multiculturalism is not one of a pluralist democracy and meritocracy, as it should be, but one of mono-cultural, mono-religious imposition on and dominance of the State, with the other ethnicities and cultures at the margins. Being Sinhala Buddhist matters more than being competent or even excelling at your job. Expertise and performance are secondary to who you are, what you are and where you come from. With this hegemonic, parochial, prejudiced mindset, a unified Sri Lankan nation cannot be built. President Premadasa was the last true multiculturalist in the political mainstream.

The Left can do the job, though, because wherever its members come from, they have transcended the parochial and espouse, however imperfectly and fitfully, a discourse and doctrine which are anti-racist, internationalist and universal.

For the UNP, the upper classes, the elites, are the nation. For the nationalist opposition, the JO-SLPP, and even the SLFP, the State is the nation. They are both wrong, though the ‘statists’ are more right than the ‘elitists’, and the elitists themselves would have a point if they were not talking about the propertied elite, the bourgeoisie, but about an educated elite.

In the final analysis, there is no nation without the people. If you construct unity among and between the people of all ethnicities and religions, you can unite the nation by constructing a multiethnic national identity. National unity can never be built by a political formation which cares more about a small super-rich urban elite, foreign powers and foreign capitalists, and is socially insensitive to the masses. It can only be built by an organic formation, rooted in the people. It can only be built by the Left.

What are the weaknesses of the Lankan Left, historically and contemporaneously, that prevent it from fulfilling its great potential?

The most basic error has been the wrong attitude and policy towards nationalism and the national heritage. A related error has been towards the nationalities question. Of course both errors have a common roots and foundation:

1. The inability to grasp the dialectical relationship between the national and the international, and more practically, the complex relationship between patriotism, nationalism, chauvinism and internationalism.

2. The inability to grasp the relationship between modernity and tradition.

The Left has swerved from ignoring the national heritage and traditions to embracing exactly the wrong ones and recoiling from them once again. Gunadasa Amarasekara and Nalin de Silva were quite wrong when they indicted the left for ignoring Anagarika Dharmapala when it should have fused with his contribution. These founders of Jathika Chinthana were half-right in their critical diagnosis of the left’s propensity for rootless cosmopolitanism but wrong in their prescription.

The heritage that the Left should have grasped was not that of, and the continuity that should have been established was not that with, Anagarika Dharmapala, nor with that of the Sinhala kings, but quite precisely with Puran Appu and the Rebellion of 1848. This would have been the equivalent of Fidel’s organic linking up with the memories and tradition of Marti, Maceo and Cespedes, the heroes of the idea and practice of national liberation and armed rebellion.

The Left ignored that linkage and then, under Wijeweera, overemphasized the Sinhala monarchic-monastic martial heritage, and flipped away from it once again. Puran Appu, the rebel from a subaltern social stratum, and the rebellion of 1848 which was part of the year of worldwide rebellions and the Communist Manifesto, lie forgotten, even in Matale itself.

The other abiding error of the Lankan Left is the failure to adopt an open and consistent stance on the Nationalities Question. It might help if all tendencies of the Left reacquainted themselves with the baseline Leninist perspective.

Marx and Lenin were hostile to federalism, which they associated with the Anarchists. However, as the renowned historian George Thomson, Professor of Greek in the University of Birmingham and author of the well-known textbooks ‘Aeschylus and Athens’ and ‘Studies in Ancient Greek Society’, summed it up in ‘From Marx to Mao Tse Tung: A Study in Revolutionary Dialectics’ (London 1971):

‘Lenin put forward the principle of regional and local autonomy. True national equality, he argued, calls for “…wide regional autonomy and fully democratic self-government…”(Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 19. p 427). “In order to eliminate national oppression, it is very important to create autonomous areas, however small, with entirely homogeneous populations, towards which members of the respective nationalities scattered all over the country, or even all over the world, could gravitate, and with which they could enter into relations and free associations of every kind.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 20, p50)’ quoted in George Thomson (1971), p 64.

The other error of the Left is the refusal to embrace the anti-fascist, anti-separatist heritage. No political formation can live outside history, with an ambiguity and ambivalence about a long war that defined the country’s contemporary history. Here too the Left has overcompensated by swinging from a basically correct anti-LTTE, anti-separatist stance that deviated to the Right by colluding with Sinhala chauvinist ideology (the late 1980s DJV, and the subsequent Jathika Chinthana influence), to an embarrassed silence about the LTTE and the war, limiting itself to the apparent causative factors, the conduct of successive bourgeois governments and/or the failure to solve the National Question.

The same goes for the struggle against imperialism and for national independence and sovereignty. Having indulged in a prolonged Sinhala nationalist deviation, the Left has swung to a ridiculous position of ignoring national independence, sovereignty and liberation.

Indeed today’s Left has either thrown the baby out with the bathwater, forgetting the national dimension while avoiding the nationalist, or retained the bathwater i.e. the nationalist, while throwing out the baby, i.e. the national, which in a pluralist society can only be multiethnic and multicultural not merely Sinhala Only..

The Left must never forget that throughout the world, it won the most respect and adherents, and grew fastest, because of its vanguard role against fascism, imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, separatism and terrorism; and for democracy, national unification and national independence and sovereignty.

In Sri Lanka, the Left has forgotten that patriotism and internationalism are perfectly compatible and must necessarily be present in combination. It must remember that nationalism, even Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, has a progressive aspect and a reactionary one—and the progressive aspect must be utilized. It must also remember that in our country, patriotism cannot be Sinhala only!

The Left must return to its critique of the LTTE and Tamil secessionism, while combining it with a stand for equal rights, non–discrimination and autonomy/ limited self-government for the Tamil majority areas. It must also recall Lenin’s dictum that the army is the peasantry in uniform. There can be no worker-peasant alliance without the army.

The final error which impedes the Lankan Left is that the vibrant Tamil Left dating from the 1940s through the 1980s (EPRLF, EROS, PLOT, NLFT, PLFT, EPDP) has virtually evaporated at least in their left identity. Instead of deepening and developing its over two-decades long critique of the LTTE, its fascist ideology, Tamil chauvinism and the Tamil bourgeois nationalist political tradition, what was left of the Tamil Left either fell silent or joined the para-LTTE, proto-secessionist, Diaspora-driven Tamil nationalist mainstream. Douglas remained an exception, but without an explicitly left identity.

Whatever one may say about the South, it is a fact that in this centenary year of the Russian Revolution, the liberal bourgeois February revolution was commemorated by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and supportive civil society, while Lenin’s October Socialist Revolution was commemorated by the Communist party with President Sirisena as the key speaker; the JO with Chamal Rajapaksa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and me as the main speakers; and the JVP with Anura Kumara Dissanayake as the main speaker.

By contrast, there was no report in any English language media, mainstream or social, of any commemoration of the centenary of the Russian revolution, in the majority Tamil speaking North or East– not even in the universities!

The first death anniversary of Fidel Castro was commemorated at Savsiripaya, Battaramulla, on November 22nd, and brought together left parties who are bitter rivals in national politics, ranging from the FSP through the JVP to the JO. One rather doubts anything of the sort happening in honor of Fidel in the North or East, though doubtless Prabhakaran and his fascist storm troopers will be commemorated on November 27th.

The difference in the political cultures of Northern and Southern Sri Lanka mirrors those of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. That being the case, it is difficult for the Sri Lankan Left to be truly Sri Lankan in its composition because the South lacks a Northern Left counterpart. Thus the Left can be Sri Lankan only in its political perspective and program.

By the Left, I mean primarily the JVP and FSP, and secondarily those left currents in the JO and in the Yahapalana government. Though bitterly divided politically and ideologically, they should explore the possibilities of converging, at least for united actions if not yet as a united front, around common values and the struggle against common foes. These are:

(I) Neoliberal globalization, rampant foreignization and privatization

(II) The scrapping or dilution of labour laws and land reform laws

(III) Imperialist hegemony, intervention, intrusion into and interference in national sovereignty and

(IV) All forms of Racism, racial and social discrimination, chauvinism,xenophobia and extremism from any and all quarters (majoritarian and minoritarian; Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim; lay and religious).

The positive values should be:

(A) The defence of democracy and national independence and sovereignty

(B) The defence of rights—worker, peasant, student—and social entitlements.

(C) The forging of solidarity between all communities and provinces of the island.

(D) National and social liberation.

(E) Internationalist solidarity

There is a powerful external factor which can support a Lankan Left project. That is the increasing tendency towards the erosion of Western hegemony and the growth of global multi-polarity, which is due to the greater economic and strategic partnership of Russia and China; the world’s largest and most populous countries. Fidel, in his last writings in the series of newspaper columns entitled ‘The Battle of Ideas’, expressed great optimism about and counted heavily on the economic rise of China, the resistance shown by a rejuvenated Russia and the rapprochement between the two powers, to effect a trajectory shift in History.

**   ****


Michael Roberts“For Humanity. For the Sinhalese. Dharmapala as Bosat Crusader,Journal of Asian Studies, 1997, 56: 1006-1032.



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