By Dayan Jayatilleka –
A political personality must be judged against the backdrop of his/her own time but also viewed with the benefit of hindsight so as to ascertain the more lasting relevance of his/her effort. So it is with Nagalingam Sanmugathasan, better known as N. Sanmugathasan and best known as “Comrade Shan”, the centenary of whose birth falls of July 3rd 2020.
To reverse the usual sequence, let us begin with the time we are living in. Noam Chomsky, the world’s most prominent and influential public intellectual said in a widely quoted recent interview that we are approaching the most dangerous point in human history” He followed it up in a more recent interview on the current wave of protests in the USA saying “The first thing that comes to mind is the absolutely unprecedented scope and scale of participation, engagement, and public support. If you look at polls, it’s astonishing. The public support both for Black Lives Matter and the protests is well beyond what it was, say, for Martin Luther King at the peak of his popularity, at the time of the “I Have a Dream” speech.” (Jacobin magazine June 2020)
In order to understand the historical roots of the strong protest movement –which surveys show has 61% of white participants, though the Black Lives matter movement is the core– the US media has begun to seek out figures from the old Black Panther Party (BPP). Counterpunch magazine recently interviewed Billy X Jennings, Black Panther Party veteran, aide to Huey P Newton, pall-bearer of George Jackson, and BPP archivist, on the subject of the recent protests. In answer to a question he replied: “I would take this back to some learning. When I first joined the BPP I read a book called Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. Mao said that at some point “a single spark can start a prairie fire”. We are seeing the spark in the streets since Floyd’s murder….”
Mao Zedong was a titan of 20th century history and one of the most consequential history-makers of modern times. He was a great ideological, intellectual and philosophical influence on several generations. Even today, the leading French philosopher Alain Badiou regards himself a Maoist.
The wave of protests in the USA and the world today, though dissimilar from the great wave of 1968 in that the portraits of Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong are absent, are validations of Mao in the animating spirit of the young people in those protests, because one of Mao’s best known slogans (which he thought summed up ‘the essence of Marxism’) was “It is Right to Rebel!”
Comrade Shan knew Mao and represented him. He was the only Sri Lankan and one of the very few South Asians to have had conversations with him. The founder-leader of India’s Maoist movement the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) much better known as the Naxalites, Charu Mazumdar, never met Mao. Shan, however, stood with Mao at Tien An Men square at the height of the Cultural Revolution when Mao reviewed one and half million Red Guards marching as the sun rose.
Shan’s Maoist party, the Ceylon Communist Party, was one of the two pathways for serious-minded revolutionaries in Sri Lanka, the other being the ‘Southern’ stream of the pro-Moscow Communist party of Sri Lanka (CPSL), identifying themselves with Dr. SA Wickremesinghe. In actuality these tended to be a single path, not two, since many of the Lankan Maoists originated in the ‘Southernist’ SA Wickremesinghe tendency of the CPSL.
Shan may be seen as the founder and ‘Vice-Chancellor’ of the ‘university’ of Marxist-Leninist learning that almost every committed Lankan revolutionary, South and North graduated from but never stayed on in. The fact that the JVP, though not itself a Maoist movement emerged from the bowels of the Maoist movement and its leading cadres were for the most part ex-Maoists, is evidence of the fecundity of Sri Lankan Maoism.
When the Maoists split from the pro-Soviet communist party in 1964, the new movement was distinguished by the fact that it had been able to carry the main trade unions of the pro-Moscow party (the Ceylon Trade Union Federation—CTUF) with it, which was a rarity in most parts of the world. The CTUF was led by Sanmugathasan. The cadre leading the All Lanka Peasants’ Congress also went along with Sanmugathasan.
Most striking was the ideological role played by the Sri Lankan Maoist leader internationally. Shan was one of the first in the world to found a Maoist communist party, breaking away from the Moscow-centric CP. His skills with the English language and his knowledge of Marxist-Leninist doctrine made him an ideal representative for the Communist Party of China in the global polemic with the pro-Moscow parties. The histories and anthologies of political literature of that period showed the Ceylon Communist Party, as the Maoists were known, the chance to punch above their weight. His English-language writings were regarded as a prime source on Maoism by students of comparative communist studies the world over.
Within Sri Lanka though, Shan’s chances of success were almost non-existent. He was from the Tamil minority, an elderly man, with a bad back and an upper middle-class lifestyle –and therefore capable of neither organic integration with the increasingly monolingual Sinhalese social base nor the practice of what he preached.
Shan’s indirect influence was very considerable though, in that Mao’s works were translated into Sinhala and had an ideological shaping influence far beyond the membership of his party (for instance, the spirited current Chairman of the Election Commissioner was a Maoist when he was my senior at Peradeniya—while he recalls me as a ‘Stalinist’).
When the April 1971 insurrection broke out, Sanmugathasan who had been one of the most acerbic ideological critics of the JVP was jailed along with them by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, to whom all revolutionaries looked and sounded alike.
Some of Shan’s best writing was in prison and published as books after his release. When he was released from jail, his party had split, with a faction adopting the new foreign policy of China, best exemplified by its line on Sri Lanka and Sudan where it supported governmental suppression of communists and radical leftists it suspected were under the influence of the USSR. This rightward shift in China’s foreign policy was the cause and consequence of its new rapprochement with the United States under Richard Nixon.
Sanmugathasan was not entirely and utterly orphaned, though. Having opposed Deng Xiaoping’s alleged restoration of capitalism in China and supported Albania, he broke with it too and guided his vastly diminished party into the Revolutionary International Movement (RIM), which confederated far-left Maoist insurgencies in Asia, including the Naxalites of India and most importantly, the successful Maoists of Nepal.
From a discussion in December 1983 with Kothandaraman, a respected senior figure in Indian Maoism and deputy leader of the underground Peoples War Group of the Naxalite movement, I knew the impact that Shan had on subcontinental Maoism and the regard in which he was held.
In the late 1960s, the Jaffna branch of Shan’s Maoist party, then in its heyday, had led a violent mass struggle, prefiguring those of today’s Naxalites in India against caste oppression in the mainly Tamil North. Though this struggle was displaced by the emerging Tamil secessionist movement, the left wing of that movement had been influenced by and had considerable respect for the struggle waged by the Maoists. When K. Pathmanabha, founder-leader of the EPRLF, wasn’t musing about the failing health of Dr. George Habash, iconic leader of the Palestinian Left movement, the PFLP (which Pathmanabha had trained with), he was asking me with concern “how is Comrade Shan?”.
However, despite the invocation of the slogan of a national liberation struggle and the arguable approximation of the conditions in the Tamil areas to those that Asian Maoism took root in, and despite the Tamil ethnicity of the founding father of Lankan Maoism, none of the Tamil Eelam armed movements were Maoists except for a small, short lived group called the National Liberation Front of Tamil Eelam (NLFT) which soon spawned a breakaway, the People’s Liberation Front of Tamil Eelam (PLFT).
The abiding irony of history, though, is the poignant relevance of the essays written by Sanmugathasan in the mid-1980s (and published in the Lanka Guardian), reminding the emergent Tamil armed movement, of Mao’s Rules of Discipline and Points for Attention, cautioning the young militants against terrorism and killing of civilians, and preaching the doctrine of Protracted People’s War in which, mass organizations form the foundation and politics in command (‘all political power flows from the barrel of the gun but the party commands the gun and not the gun the party’- Mao).
Had Velupillai Prabhakaran heeded this advice of an older Tamil leader and guru who had dialogued with, learned from and literally stood alongside Mao, the greatest theorist and practitioner of guerrilla warfare in history, he and his militia may not have been obliterated on the banks of the Nandikadal lagoon.
Shan and my father, Mervyn de Silva (whose 21st death anniversary fell last week), were friends. Mervyn had fondly nicknamed him ‘Mao Tse-Shan’. He used to visit our rented flat in Ward Place and Mervyn would drop in for a meal at Shan’s home down Schofield Place. My father and he would discuss and debate Chinese foreign policy, domestic politics and inner-party dynamics in depth. When Mervyn edited the Ceylon Daily News, Sunday Observer, The Times and the Lanka Guardian, he never failed to publish Shan, much to the slightly bemused chagrin of his friend Pieter Keuneman, the cosmopolitan leader of the much larger, mainstream, pro-Moscow communist party.
I had read Mao as I barely entered my teens, thanks to Comrade Shan. When he returned from China, he used to bring me, a schoolboy, lacquered bamboo Mao badges, tunics, and various editions of the Little Red Book of ‘The Thoughts of Mao’ and of Mao’s poems.
When I was a young man in the 1980s acting on Mao’s moral-philosophical warrant that “it is right to rebel!” and trying to survive for the rest of the decade “all the vicissitudes of this dangerous business” of “risking one’s skin to prove one’s platitudes” (Che Guevara), comrade Shan afforded me shelter for some weeks, which could have proved painfully costly for him at the hands of the state, and terminally so at the hands of the JVP which had already murdered old Left veterans like trade union leader LW Panditha.
On this his birth centenary, my indelible memory from a late-night conversation is of him confessing that “In matters of ideology, I am a Brahmin.”