By Kumar David -
“We gave it everything we had”, said Hector Abhayavardhana in a conversation with me on 4th February 2012 about how the left had committed itself to the United Front (UF) coalition government of 1970. This drove home to me the mind-set difference between the Old Leaders and us younger rebels about the coalition. They took their hands in their lives and gave it all they had; it was a Rubicon they crossed and there would be no turning back. To us in the party’s dissident left, the coalition was a strategy; go for it, but push to go beyond it; when the limits are reached it will be time to part with the national and petty bourgeoisie and go beyond it. All our Vāma Marxist eggs were not going to be put in that coalition basket.
The LSSP was stonewalling internal critics; I recall confrontations in 1973-74: “Do you want to break-up the government, comrade, long before our work is done?” Bernard Soysa, Leslie Goonawardena and Colvin would fire back (foxy old NM was the first to see that things were going amiss). I have a story to tell. Over and over again Bernard drilled it into my thick young head, but my numb skull proved impenetrable. “This is it; Kumar, this is it; there is no something else to follow,” he kept saying, and “What’s the next stage?” I kept asking. One day the penny dropped! Coalition with Mrs B was the instrument, it was the fulfilment of the Holy Grail, and here lay the road to socialism. Bloody fool; I was barking up the wrong tree; the coalition was no stepping stone to another Leninist world beyond; it was not the prelude to the overthrow of the state; it itself was the real thing! The new constitution had created an essential instrument for that task.
This saga of my shocked youthful epiphany and the left leaders’ paradigm shift is the tale of how the road to socialism altered. An accommodation with populism, an alignment with the petty bourgeoisie, a strategic thrust in 1964, and the new constitution – an instrument of state power – had become the real thing in itself. The disjuncture was deeply theoretical, it was not opportunist, it was more than strategic; they gave it all they had. I really have no time for today’s intellectual pygmies who are unable to grasp that the leaders of the Old Left erred but they were not opportunists. Or if you prefer, they grabbed opportunity by the grand historical fetlock, they were not in it for ministerial perks, jobs for the boys and petrol allowances. That is why when it came to the crunch they would rather quit than change tack or polish slippers.
They had much to show for it: a new constitution, separation from the Crown, an autochthonous judiciary, the fiscal and administrative strengthening of parliamentarians against the bureaucracy and the Civil Service, the takeover of the commanding heights of the economy (the plantations); Pieter Keuneman’s far reaching housing reforms; and NM’s stewardship of the economy laying the ground for domestically sustained development. No government in Lanka has ever pulled off so much radical change in so short a time. “Let us go on like this without overturning the apple cart and we will have a deep social transformation in place” – this is what Bernard was trying to drive into youthful Vāma skulls passionate about the ‘next stage.’
The most significant achievement of the coalition has received least attention, though its importance is not disputed by those who understand: that is NM’s management of the national economy. He pulled the country’s external finances out of the abyss they were staring into, corrected major structural defects in the internal finances, and put in place financial systems to support development and growth. It is open to debate whether the austerity measures went too far, but sound long-term management of the economy in the public interest, not cheap populism, was his lodestar.
We have now arrived at the core issue. What were the LSSP leaders attempting to achieve, what goals would have justified compromises as far-reaching as they were prepared to make, and why did this great gamble end in failure of the dimensions of a Greek tragedy? The answer to the first question is unambiguous: the left leaders were marshalling everything they had for a monumental battle to transform the state. To transform it from a liberal democratic state to an instrument that could be employed for movement towards socialism. Achieved from the inside by constitutional processes – unlike textbook revolutions where the barricades are stormed. Nevertheless their aspirations were no less bold.
There was international justification for the opening that the left saw. Significant, transformational, changes were being pushed by Nasser (1956-70), Allende (1970-73), Ben Bella (1963-65) followed by Boumedienne (1965-78) and Sukarno (1945-67) – the dates in parenthesis show the dates in office. Victory in Cuba, Che, and impending victory in Vietnam, Mozambique and Angola were inspirational of the possibilities. One has to throw one’s mind back to the heady 1960s to grasp the freshness in the air and the spring in the step. The JVP uprising was infantile folly, but it was born of the same bloom.
I have been at pains to explain the commitment, the evolving local class relations and the international mood that motivated the Marxist leadership of the left, schooled in historical materialism, to make a political and theoretical leap in the 1960s, seeking frontiers beyond but via bourgeois democracy. Marx held, after the Paris Commune of 1871, that the proletariat could not lay hands on the old state and wield it for its purposes; it had to fashion the state anew. The 1960s transformations of the state in postcolonial nations were mind-boggling in quantity and variety: secessions, unifications, ethnicity-inspired states, fascist ones, military juntas, and by far the most important, the modern bourgeois democratic republic. It was reasonable to treat Marx’s injunctions as sketches to be filled out in the flesh as time moved on.
The Brutal Monstrosity of a Sinhala-Buddhist State
This brings me to the tragic concluding segment of this essay, which I will lay out in two sections. Superficially it seemed that the left’s grave error in the 1970s was not entering a coalition, but the way it conducted itself in coalition. It compromised on issues it ought not to have. Vesting executive authority for MPs, which powers, including the chit system for employment, was abused. Widespread corruption of SLFPers, and robbery of state property such as after the estates takeover was rampant. Turning a blind eye to these were culpable articles of compromise.
The left in may have survived these conciliations but for one crucial compromise that spelt disaster. Acquiescing in the oppression of the Tamil minority was a Mephistophelean compact; the shameful masala vadai 1966 May Day parade was an egregious forerunner. The left was in a daze as the postcolonial pluralist state, morphed into a Sinhala-Buddhist one. The LSSP did not compromise on the national question; rather it refused to theoretically assimilate the de facto on-going transformation of the state. The the new constitution blinded them to the catastrophic consequences the ejection of the Tamils from the nation’s political spaces. The so-called betrayal of the national question by the old leaders was actually blindness – vide Colvin’s haughty dismissal of the pleas of the Tamils and his personal hubris towards Federal Party leaders.
I use Sinhala-Buddhist state as a Marxist, not an ethnic, category: the hegemonic ideology of the nation, ethnic repression, mono-ethic armed forces and police, discrimination in education and employment; these drove the Tamils to political alienation, territorial dual power and civil war. While the left was seeking to craft an instrument for passage to socialism, in reality another monster was emerging. None of this happened suddenly. It was a process and as an insider I know that the LSSP was negligent in addressing the dangers of the emerging Sinhala-Buddhist state and did not prepare its cadres to face the peril. The splendour of constitution drafting obscured this task.
The end result was empty-handed expulsion from government and the loss of the future to the JVP, the alienation of the Tamils, and impotency when authoritarianism arrived in the shroud of the 1978 Constitution. The left had lost the masses; it could no longer summon them to action and for the first time, lost the working class and the intelligentsia, lost its base in the Western, Sabaragamuwa and Southern provinces, and lost control of the city streets. The left had lost its identity.
The Cruellest Cut of All
Notwithstanding the above, the cruellest cut was the metamorphosis of international circumstances. There are two sides to the dialectical coin, contradictions within bourgeois democracy enabling change and the global uncertainties accompanying that change. In the abstract, this sounds absurdly simple; the challenge however is the contextual concrete. The Old Left leaders saw the contextual concrete, but Lanka’s coalition opportunity came too late in time, meaning the greater global dynamics of the age undermined their project. The outside world changed dramatically in the 1970s as social democracy and the welfare state were bundled out by Reagan-Thatcher neo-liberalism. The post-war boom reversed, and the social contract and the good times drew to a close. It was the global capitalism that dealt the left’s project a fatal blow.
The left was jettisoned because neo-liberalism had arrived. The coalition project was behind the times; a new global dynamic caught the left mid-stream. Neo-liberalism as an economic philosophy and neo-conservatism as an ideology rose to prominence, burying social democracy, the welfare state, and eventually post-war liberal democracy in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The switch from a social contract with liberalism and social democracy to the neo-liberal schema was the global background to the collapse of Lanka’s coalition experiment.
Shortages and long queues were the fault of the left and the economic blind alley into which it had led Mrs B, it was said. The truth was otherwise; the global economic climate turned sharply hostile in the early 1970s and the coalition government could not have escaped a painful economic downturn. Dr Saman Kelegama, in a review of Professor Buddhadasa Hewavitharana’s book on NM’s economic policies, dwells on the unprecedented global and local difficulties that Sri Lanka’s economy ran into in the 1970 to 1975 period. “The terms of trade deteriorated from 260 in 1970 to 145 in 1975 (44 per cent decline), international oil prices soared from 147 in 1972 to 826 in 1975 (price index of oil with 1969=100). The Bretton Woods system of orderly exchange rates collapsed, causing chaos in currency management. On the domestic front, the 1971 insurgency disrupted the supply side of the economy but the 1972 constitution had emphasised ‘economic independence’ and less external dependence, finally, 1974 was marked by a severe drought”.
It is of the greatest importance to recall that it was Mrs B who fired the left from the government and shredded the UF manifesto. Recall that it was not JR who first brought neo-liberal economics to Lanka though he became its principal architect and his name is synonymous with the policy. The midwife who introduced it was Mrs B and the year of its birth 1975. Mrs Bandaranaike downgraded the left ministers offering NM the Health Ministry and Colvin a more junior position, but the message in effect was a radical transformation of the relations of power in the government and emasculating the left. I have laboured the point in this chapter that the left parties entered the coalition with the intention of carrying through a transformative project. Mrs B and Felix Dias Bandaranaike were now forcing through a change that spelt the end of this road and unsurprisingly the left rejected it. In similar circumstances today’s Dead Left, sans vision and purpose, will accept any portfolio from President Rajapaksa; their programme is simply to be ministers.
An interesting question is what if it had been given a few more years? What would have become of NM’s project to put the country on a sound footing for domestically driven economic development and Colvin’s transformative constitution? It is absurd to separate the two since the fate of the 1972 Constitution is inextricable from the fate of the coalition project, but it is an interesting thought experiment. There is good reason to believe that NM’s project would have borne fruit. It would not have been a socialist Lanka, but an economically stable and social democratic one. Lanka would have had to adjust to the tidal wave of globalisation and neo-liberalism, but it could have done so on a surer footing.
There are three broad reasons one can hypothesise for the failure of the coalition project: (i) it was necessarily doomed from the start (the hard Trotskyite line), (ii) blunders in execution as outlined previously, (iii) the onset of negative international conditions.
I attach greater significance to (iii) over (ii); but I have granted that alienation of the Tamils and over-politicisation of the state administration carries considerable weight. The view that nothing could have rescued the coalition project, option (i), I believe is deterministic and simplistic. It is absurd to suggest that the future was carved in stone on the coalition’s horoscope. A lesser goal than across-the-board transformation of the state or substantial socialisation of the economy would have been the outcome. No doubt the 1977 elections would have been lost, but if Mrs B had not shredded the coalition and dismantled the UF the loss would have been less cataclysmic. The years from 1975 to 1977 would have had to be used to come to terms with new global economic realities by making the exchange rate flexible, relaxing import controls and compromising with foreign capital.
A bigger question mark hangs over the constitution. I differ with the view that the left was blithely insensate to the reality that appeasing the mildly authoritarian populism of Mrs B cleared the road for the real authoritarianism of the JR Constitution. I concur that the 1972 Constitution contributed to the disaffection of the Tamils and to undermining professionalism in public administration. However, it was the crushing electoral defeat, that is to say the general failure of the coalition project that cleared the way for the 1978 Constitution. Had this been prevented, that is had JR’s majority been kept below two-thirds, quite feasible if the UF had not been demolished by Mrs B in 1975, the far from perfect 1972 Republican Constitution would still be limping along and Lanka would have been spared Klepto-Nepotistic Authoritarianism coursing towards a Corporate State. JR’s market ideology would not have made such deep inroads, corrupting social mores and erasing social consciousness. Democratic and human rights would have been better protected by a more alert public.