31 January, 2023


Bending Obligingly: The Western-Oriented Elite & Intelligentsia

By Mervyn De Silva

Mervyn De Silva

Mervyn De Silva

[Excerpted from the multi-part ‘Politics Today’ think-piece “1956: The Cultural Revolution That Shook the Left” and “The Left Awakens from Romance to Reality”, full-page articles published in the Ceylon Observer Magazine Edition, May 16th & 23rd, 1967, Mervyn de Silva’s essay was a retrospective of 1956, a prefiguration of the broad anti-UNP center-left Opposition front of 1968 and a prospective signal of the fall of the rightwing pro-western government in 1970, three years after its publication. A critical reconsideration of postcolonial society, it was also a pioneering auto-critique of the Westernized elite and English-educated cosmopolitan intelligentsia of the Right and Left by one of the most discerning intellects and striking personalities of that milieu. It contained the suggestion of a possible synthesis, a third cultural and intellectual sensibility and stance. At the time, Mervyn was 37 years old.—Dayan Jayatilleka for 16th Death Anniversary of Mervyn de Silva – June 22]

In the national process, 1956 is the crucial turning point. What was the historical nature and content of this event? The 1956 movement, spearheaded by the rural middle classes and the Sinhala Buddhist intelligentsia was an anti-privilege impulse directed against the English educated establishment. It had a dual character: culturally revivalist (languages, religion, customs, dress, etc.) and economically radical, or it is loosely termed now, “socialist’. An historical oddity, it did not come as in many other colonial countries as an integral part of an independence or national liberation struggle.

The singular characteristic of a genuine mass movement is not only that it becomes the physical expression of the mass mind in action but that the popular will continuously impresses itself on the leadership, pushing and patterning it to the often inarticulate though feverish needs of the masses. In India there was such an active commerce between the people and their leaders; a constant flow of sympathy between the masses and the upper classes which provided leadership; a unity forged on the anvil of mass action.

Total Surrender of Our Upper Classes

In little manageable Ceylon, colonialism meant both the spoliation of traditional culture and the total surrender of our upper classes to the alien’s “superior” way of life. In the say of resistance, there were few lonely voices—the stirring indictments of a Dharmapala, the patriotic polemics of a Piyadasa Sirisena, the purist ardour of a Munidasa Kumaratunga, the sublime if little known, promptings of an Ananda Coomaraswamy. In the main, though, the foreigner took the Ceylonese upper class by the scruff of its neck, scrubbed away the native mud, dressed it top hat and tails, tutored it in table manners and taught it that the umpire’s word was the only logos which a gentleman need honour.

In the course of one century, this English-educated class was totally alienated from the people, uprooted from the soil. This apartness deepened the cleavage to a point where a Disraeli might have said there were two nations. The gap between the one percent (or what Mr. Mettananda was to call ‘the microscopic minority’) and the rest was never bridged even with Independence.

It was a class therefore destined for a rude shock. At the risk of a sociological simplification, one may say that a class can fight and survive if it has the vigour to do so and that this vitality, if it is there, resides in the culture of that class. What have we here? Three hundred of democracy, and what, asked Harry Lime (in Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man’) did the Swiss produce? He waited for his own reply: the cuckoo clock. Hundred and thirty years of English education (I take the date from my old school song) and what did the Ceylonese elite produce? A coup-coup without the clockwork and intellectuals living on borrowed TIME (I mean the magazine).

Bends Obligingly

The Western-oriented Ceylonese is the perfect pasticheur. He is the intellectual counterpart of the Japanese manufacturer—he will copy anything or anybody. It is not that he is colourless; further, he is chameleon-like, taking the protective coloration of his immediate environment. Hence Ceylonese move easily in the milieu of Paris or London or New York and is more readily accepted than an Indian or a Chinese or a Nigerian.

An Indian is different—distinctive enough to be caricatured as he has been so felicitously, by a Danny Kaye or Peter Sellers or more recently by Malcolm Muggeridge. The Ceylonese intelligentsia bends obligingly, since he has nothing of his own, nothing strong or individual, with which to resist the external thrust of another’s cultural influence.

Encounters with No Hints of Synthesis

Had the English educated, in his own clime, retained some of his roots; if he had critically absorbed the ideas and values of the foreigner and assimilated what was good and true for his own people; if he had gone to his own folk and engaged in generous exchange and sympathetic dialogue; if he had not so cruelly decried and degraded the traditional, but tried to foster harmonious fusion where he promoted conflict, our history may have been different. Perhaps, our politics too. But that was not to be, and, as Aristotle said, not even God can change the past.

Where a class abdicates its moral right to leadership, it is already doomed and must surely die. Happily today, there are signs that the more sensitive among the English-educated have awakened to a sense of cultural responsibility. Once antagonistic groups are moving towards each other, notably in the local theatre. There is no easy merger, no hints of synthesis yet. It is a groping, hesitant and tentative. Often such encounters (from a strictly aesthetic standpoint) result in vulgarity, in the experimentally brash and the awkward. But the process is a salutary one and the English educated would be foolish not to give it an encouraging (not patronizing) push. A benign history has granted this class a reprieve. If it does not amply compensate for its historical offenses, even the finer minds of this class may find themselves trapped in a tragic immobility, like the prince in di Lampedusa’s ‘The Leopard’—without, however, his noble demeanour. The English educated intellectual may live long enough to write his own epitaph as the man who watched the train of history go by.

Mass Momentum Shatters the Right

Already, by the forties, the sensitive ear could pick up the first rumblings: the free education agitation, the Swabhasha movement, the Buddhist Commission. The challenger, the ‘new class’ which was to lead the assault was sounding the alarm, choosing the battleground and shrewdly creating the casus belli which would best rally the masses behind it. This was the necessary prelude to 1956 and in this period, the Right and Left, the orthodox contenders for power, carried on their “phony war” blissfully unaware of the gathering storm.

Meanwhile the masses lay dormant; watching, waiting, resentful. By 1956 the equation was complete, the issues, the new class, the leader, the political alignments, the socioeconomic forces which would jet-propel the masses into action. In 1956 they moved: they moved with such a terrific momentum that it shattered the Right (temporarily) and shocked the Left. For both it was a traumatic experience.

Language was not only an issue in 1956 but its banner, and it was more than a contest between parties: it was a far more fundamental clash of the “two nations”. Thus parties have come and gone, governments have won and lost since that year.

With every government one can say that it is a “people’s government” because it was the people that elected it. Furthermore every successful party must have some rapport with the people otherwise it would never be put into power. The distinction in my view is this: the general election of 1956 was more than a general election and a victory for one party. It was a mass movement choosing a particular historical occasion, a convenient moment to express itself—to choose not between parties or manifestoes of the day but to resolve issues unresolved for a century. It was more than party politics; it was social ferment.

There is always a sense of identity between people and the victorious party. But there can be a difference in the intensity of identification. In 1956 that intensity manifested itself in a hundred forms, dramatic, symbolic, the plainly ludicrous. I shall never forget the mob that broke into the chamber of the house of epesntatives and the sight of men feeling the speaker’s chair as if it was their property. Nor shall I forget the passenger who was hauled up into court for travelling without a ticket because he honestly believed he was entitled to a free ride from “apey anduwa’.


Intellectual Cosmopolitanism & A New Realism

The far stronger cultural nationalist drive completely confounded the Left. How do a people assert their national identity, especially a people who believe that their own way of life has been willfully neglected, disrupted or partially destroyed? How does a man do it? He searches for marks of distinction and (because his emotional need is so compulsive) stresses and overstresses them. So do a people. They find these “marks” in religion, language, customs and ceremony. This is the traditionalist impulse; it looks back. The Marxists with their utterly modernist cosmopolitan outlook were constitutionally incapable of grasping the nature of this movement. When the “revolution” that the Left had labored for came, it wore cloth-and-banian, not a red shirt.

The basic cause of the Left’s disenchantment lay in its cosmopolitanism and its intellectual distance from the national reality. The Left was the prodigal son of the English-educated Establishment—to be tolerated affectionately as a sometimes useful nuisance but never permitted to be an active threat to vested interests. It was only when the prodigal returned to emerge suddenly as a director of the family estate (in the coalition of 1964) that the western-oriented Establishment rang the alarm bell and denounced their old favorites as “traitors” and “apostates”. The Left had left the Club and unforgivably, joined the fellows from “other schools”!

For this deliberate transformation of its public image the Left has been castigated as careerists who have cast aside their principles and their integrity. To this the Left may ruefully reply: where did these principles get us? What the critics call opportunism, is, for the Left, a new Realism.

The process of growing up is sad and painful for it means a banishment of youthful idealism, the sacrifice of daring, the erosion of ardour; a tacit, perhaps bitter acknowledgement that life is brutal to the idealist and that success in any sphere compels an adjustment to this awful truth. Total integrity may be an occupation for the saint and the artist; alas a chimera for the politician.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    The dictionary meaning of Intelligentsia

    “a group of intelligent and well-educated peo.ple who guide or try to guide the political, artistic, or social development of their society”

    I very much doubt that such a group doesn’t exist among the Sri Lankans when they adore corrupt politicians or terrorist PRABAS

  • 5

    The sad thing is DJ strongly believes his Guru MaRa is a political saint and a patriotic actor ( or artist ) and DJ in desperation advocates for MaRa to come back.

    DJ is trying to prove that his father was wrong and MaRa coming back is not a chimera.

    • 2

      Quite the contrary. I think my father was right, as far back as 1967. I was just too bookish to understand it. If I had understood what he was trying to say, I would have taken the stance I am taking now on Sinhala nationalism, way back in the 1970s and ’80s– rather than the stance I took squarely against it.

  • 0

    I feel it’s appropriate to separate two classes of people identified in this critique, one, the so-called intelligentsia and the other the wealthy, perhaps the 1%. The wealthy was destroyed not by Swabhasha but by nationalization and land reform. Swabhasha did little to harm the intelligentsia but ironically destroyed whatever opportunities the educated poor would have had to rise above the sweltering cesspool of Sri Lankan public service due to the Sinhala only collar and leash.

    The “Kaduwa” was indeed created by the great unwashed who later impaled their own children upon it. The “intelligentsia” prodded on unhindered as everything outside the public service remained within the domain of the Queen’s English. They sat their London examinations, they went off to Universities abroad to broaden their horizons while the educated poor languished like myopic frogs in poorly funded and politicised Universities in Sri Lanka.

    It is of little debate that Swabhasha is what has held our people back for the past 40 years, we are playing catch up now but at what human cost? Ironically, it was the creation of a hypocritical, self-serving Prime Minister who could hardly navigate the Sinhala alphabet himself. Sadly, he saw the bullet too late to save the rest of us from his vote grabbing antics.

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