By Kumar David –
It has been known for a while that a section of the Communist Party (CP), now a majority, and DEW himself were not happy with the way the Joint Opposition (JO) was conducting itself. There are two issues, unwillingness to abandon the authoritarian elements of the JR Constitution which is now under review and will, perhaps, be replaced or amended, and secondly the loud racism in JO rhetoric. The CP’s decision to cut a path independent of the JO and hold its own May Day rally took me by pleasant surprise. A new chapter has opened, unless the decision to split from the JO is reversed in ongoing CP internal struggles. This essay is about prospects for the medium-term, say next three years, assuming the policy change holds. The ground to cover is extensive and I can survey but little of the terrain in a miserable 1500 or so words.
The first delectable dish served up by the CP, is what for months I have been advising Ranil-Sirisena and their government to do, but they have scampered like cowards. That is the CP has put a break on the rumbustious excess and incitement that has been JO stock in trade for the last 12 to 18 months. The JO can no longer engage in provocation, trouble making and chauvinist posturing with the same bravado as before because when one’s own house is falling apart on the inside, it is no time to set fire to your neighbour’s premises. This is true notwithstanding a large JO May Day rally.
This falling apart is the second delicious morsel the CP has served up and we (LSSP-Majority Group) are providential beneficiaries. Tissa has no leg left to stand on and reunification of the LSSP under a non-subservience to the Rajapaksas platform is the next logical step for party majority and minority. The place of the LSSP is with the left; the CP is already talking to the JVP and Frontline Socialists. Though it is early days, new opportunities await the LSSP and a retirement home beckons Tissa. Vasu’s little molecule will “melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew” – pun intended.
There is unfinished business to attend to before the LSSP (MG) can distance itself from the R&S administration and take its rightful place alongside the CP and JVP in a unified left structure. That is, it must see the new constitution through. Of recent there have been misgivings whether a new constitution will be tabled, or if amendments substantial enough to make the exercise worthwhile will see the light of day. There were fears that a referendum would be hard to win in the face of the JO’s racist onslaught. The CP’s move and a joint left (JVP, Frontline, Siritunga, Bahu and of course CP and LSSP) campaign may see off these fears and turn the tables. It will be necessary to ensure that the proposed constitution, while acceptable to most Sinhalese, also meets the minimum concerns of the minorities and is palatable to the left. These are now less difficult targets to reach. In the interim it is essential that Jayampathy remains in pole-position among drafters; input from Lal Wijenayake who led an opinion survey will be invaluable. This is the “still unfinished business” for the LSSP (MG) to attend to in government.
This is all by way of contemporary background to the two main concerns of this essay; first, an organisational structure appropriate for the left in the medium-term and second, theoretical categories for left/socialist/Marxist thinking in this historical period in the context of recent global transformations. The first is focussed on Lanka while the second is worldwide and must take account of international economic transformations and recent global neo-populist phenomena.
Splits, sects and splinters
You may have heard the old yarn that if you lock up 24 Sri Lankan Marxists in a room and open the door half an hour later, two dozen ‘revolutionary’ political parties will emerge. This is true, literally. The number of Trotskyite splinters I know of are seven and bear allegiance to mother-groups in the UK (2), France (2), Belgium (1), USA-Canada (1) and Venezuela (1). There are not less than four post-Shan, post Sino-Soviet-split, shreds, floating around. There is the JVP, its fragment the Peratugami (Frontline) and the fragment’s fragment which I call Kurutugami. And don’t forget the Dead Left, where LSSP and the CP are internally divided, and Vasudeva pilots an obscenity spewing rump. Finally we have various civil society versions of the left.
This haze of jetsam and flotsam, many of microbe size, is a criminal waste of organisational and intellectual energy. These guys are no fools; they have read their books and can recite Marx and Lenin like the multiplication table. They are not frauds; they make sacrifices of time, money of which they have little, and are often dragged off and persecuted by the state. But without unity all that energy, sincerity and resources is plain wasted, just flushed down the drain. Doesn’t the irrational idiocy of 15 peewee May Day rallies say it all! Even the JVP rally was not as large as former years.
If this amorphous mass is coordinated it will achieve much; not 100% of what anyone wants, but a lot of what everyone wants. This is how the left in Greece (Syriza) and Spain (Podemos) made headway. Even in Italy the Five-Star effort which is doing well is a neo-populist outfit of uncertain classification. An accord where all accept a basic programme and a structure is more productive than each sect digging into its own ideological and organisational cave. Electorally a dozen or two dozen parliamentary seats in 2020 for a unified Lankan left is very plausible.
Two items stand at the core of a left merger; a ‘minimum constitution’ and a socio-economic programme. ‘Minimum constitution’ means repeal of JR’s authoritarian bonapartist state structure, democratic rights and repeal of PTA, devolved space for minorities, and directive principles of state to drive an economic strategy that addresses popular needs and populist alienation. I am not so silly as to propose a draft and only flag issues that underwrite a ‘minimum constitution’ acceptable to the left.
The constitutional issue is directed at the current political conjuncture but left socio-economic concerns are long-term and the left should have no illusions about the Ranil-Sirisena administration or the UNP led government. What the left desires is a sustained programme that this government is unlikely to deliver. However, populism (in Asia it is India and the Philippines) swings wildly. Trump under media pressure, said to CBS News: “I don’t stand by anything that I said before; you can assume what you like”. The extent to which the left can push the S&R government and the future relationship between this government and the left are open questions. Nevertheless the sine qua non for effectiveness is left amalgamation which thanks to the CP’s move has come a little closer. A united front, as any fool can see, is a trivial first step; the real objective must be a single unified party.
Categories of twenty-first century left thought
Marx’s bedrock, the materialist approach to history, and dialectics or systems-dynamics, remains unshaken. Historical materialism accords primacy in history and society to production & technology, wars & conquests, class & state, wealth & surplus, and capital & finance. It is now the platform of all political, social and economic thought and is taken for granted. Materialism, in a reversal of Descartes, asserts: “I am, therefore I think”. More precisely, Cartesian dualism dissolves when human social activity is perceived as the active integration of man and his world.
Marx’s social dialectics is immersed in dynamics; evolution – at times by leaps. In scientific lingo dialectics is a systems approach to society and history. In science, modern systems theory is about interaction, contradiction, movement, hierarchy, subjectivity, uncertainty and chaos. But generalisations like this are the easy part; the hard part is getting it right in practice; getting it right in the world today or in Lanka in the midst of our muddle and mess.
Suffocating official ‘Marxism’ that ruled in the post-1930 era is dead. The failure of 100% state-owned, state-‘told’ economics is conclusive and the one party political system went up in flames with the Soviet Camp. The rise of China (#) has stimulated interest in state-capitalism as an interesting intermediate tool. Though the world is still drowning in the endgame of the 2008 recession it has not brought the masses flooding to the left or to socialism; instead they have been shovelled by the millions into the lap of neo-populism. Which by the way is not one thing but a variety of manifestations. The intellectual categories and organisational tools that post Bolshevik, post Maoist Marxism bequeathed to us are outdated and inadequate. The rise and demise of neo-populism, sometimes as caricature and comedy, or sometimes in surprising mutations like Mody, gives us breathing space for reflection, reformulation of socio-economic programmes, and organisational restructuring. (#Rise of China is a loaded term; for a sustained study see for example: “Easternization: Asia’s Rise and America’s Decline” by Gideon Rachman. Other Press, 2016].
My contention is that a window of opportunity has opened and we should use it to reflect, discuss and formulate. There is a lively interest in fresh thinking, however, unless it is linked to an integration of the left, there is no practical motivation. With that it’s adios for today.