Lilies, if they fester, smell far worse than weeds ~ (From Shakespeare’s sonnet, No. 94)
The caption above is derived from, and relates to, a book by Daniel Oppenheimer titled Exit Right: the People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. Oppenheimer studies the character and career of six apostates, individuals who left the visionary politics of the Left and moved to the extreme right. Where did they start off from, and where did they end? Why did they change belief, values and commitment? What were the consequences? To cite one case, David Horowitz, once in the New Left movement, son of members of the Communist Party, came to recognise and champion his Jewish identity. He’s now, among other things, director of a website that tracks individuals and organisations on the political left; opposes ‘political correctness’ and left-orientation in academia; is unsympathetic to the suffering of Africans under the slave trade, claiming that Africans and Arabs are as much complicit, and is fiercely anti-Islam. “There’s no zealot like a convert” applies as much in politics and public life as it does in religion.
Very often, discussion is at cross-purposes because crucial terms are not defined. Working towards a clarification of ‘socialism’, I suggest that though the concept has political and social implications, its foundation is a certain approach to economic organisation and control. The emphasis being on economic structure, socialists see society along the horizontal lines of class. While Moslems, Sinhalese and Tamils (alphabetical order) or Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Moslems can, and do, belong to the upper, middle and working classes, a vertical division would categorise individuals according to ‘race’, religion or skin-colour – irrespective of individual income – and place them in different, mutually-excluding, categories. (Caste can be said to have both the horizontal and vertical axes but is not relevant to the present exploration.) Thus, racism and socialism cannot co-exist; a ‘racist’ cannot be a socialist, though some fondly and determinedly make that claim: it’s remarkable how we human beings easily accommodate, and comfortably live with, contradiction. The Nazis labelled themselves National Socialists but had nothing to do with socialism. On the contrary, they exterminated the socialists they could get their hands on.
Nelson Mandela notes in his autobiography that the dark forces of ‘race’, colour and religion are far more powerful than feelings of class solidarity. Indeed, history provides us with many examples where, in the pursuit of some religious or ‘racial’ abstraction, people have been willing – and knowingly so – to damage, if not destroy their material progress: Homo sapiens can display a woeful lack of sapience. In the days of Jim Crow in America, vestiges of which still persist, poor whites allied with richer whites rather than with poor blacks. In Sri Lanka, the vertical division of ‘race’ has mattered the most, far more than the horizontal division of class. In fact, ‘race’ has been the single determining factor of national life ever since independence. (Since ‘race’ has no scientific basis, I place the term within marks: see, Sarvan, “The term ‘Racism’ and Discourse”, in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, London, Vol 35, No 2, 2000. ‘Race’ does not exist but belief in it persists, and racism continues to flourish. Derrida pointed out that some terms are unsatisfactory but having no alternative, we use them. Such words, Derrida said, should be placed “under erasure”.)
Racism may be primitive but it can also bring personal, and public or political gain: I use the term “primitive” here in the sense of relating to an early stage in evolution. It may be met with incredulity by younger readers but S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in an earlier avatar advocated federalism. Later, he saw that the goal he coveted most, power, could be easiest gained through exciting group animosity: as it’s said, “the rest is history”. Early Irish settlers in America, conscious of what they had suffered under British imperialism; mindful of all that had forced them to leave their beloved Ireland, were initially sympathetic to the plight of the Africans. But soon perceiving where power and success lay, they distanced themselves from the blacks, and emphasised their whiteness: see, How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev. Several recent studies indicate that some, if not many, Asians in America, Europe and elsewhere tend to keep aloof from Africans. In an unconscious acceptance and internalisation of skin-colour based evaluation of human worth, the thinking seems to be: “We are not white but at least we are not black”. See, among others, The Karma of Brown Folk by Vijay Prashad.
But why do some who start off with high socialist principles such as equality and justice for all, cross over to the far right? Saul who relished persecuting Christians suddenly became Paul, and is credited with helping to turn what was a small sect into the world religion that Christianity came to be. But outside such instances from religion, it’s almost invariably a case of pious Pauls becoming ungenerous Sauls. Early idealism rusts. “He who is not a socialist when young, has no heart” is met with the rejoinder, “But he who continues to be a socialist in later years has no head.”
Socialism, at least in theory, prioritises people (irrespective of ‘accidents of birth’ such as ethnicity, religion, sex or skin-colour) before profit; Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product; the providing of services (housing, education, health, transport etc.) to the making of money. In socialism, applying words from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, ‘The Deserted Village’, it should not be a case of “where wealth accumulates and men decay”. But the communist vision of a paradise-on-earth proved a mirage; worse, under the likes of Stalin, the dream became a daily, waking, nightmare. While the religious hold that salvation comes from God or the gods, communists fervently, foolishly, believed it could be realized in this life and in this world through communism: see, The God That Failed, edited by Richard Crossman.
Given the rate of unemployment; given the degree and widespread nature of poverty in Sri Lanka, why has the Left failed? Selfish calculation; the triumph of myth and emotion over evidence and reason, the persistence of atavistic impulses seem not to provide the complete answer. Perhaps, it’s also because socialism has failed to meet the expectations it created; failed to deliver on its own promises: as with love, disillusionment can lead to rejection, even to hostility and hate. I recall that when the great Dr N. M. Perera, after years in the political wilderness, at last gained a good measure of power, people thought he would bring about a significant change in their life. When things continued very much as before (whatever the causes or excuses), I recall the taunt in Sinhala then was something on the lines of, “What happened to the golden brains?” Going further, Dr Colvin R. de Silva changed from statesman to popular politician, and did away with equality and minority-safeguards in the constitution of 1972. (Those Tamils, a minority within a minority, who had believed in, trusted and joined the Left, felt let down and abandoned. Words from Robert Browning’s poem ‘The Lost Leader’ come to mind: “Just for a handful of silver he left us / Just for a riband to stick in his coat”. Tamils who had remained with Tamil parties felt vindicated – unhappily.)
It need not be always so; it need not always be a matter of the pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other. The anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was invited to Russia, feted and given financial help by the state. She left after twenty-three months: “I must cry out against the gigantic deception posing as truth and justice”. However, her fundamental values and concerns did not alter. Socialist George Orwell wrote Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four but his concern for the poor and his opposition to imperialism did not change. One can reject the form but still hold true to the essence.
This brings me back to Daniel Oppenheimer and his Exit Right. I wonder if there are studies of Sri Lankan individuals who started off on the left, and ended at the far-right. There are several of them (all too many) both past and present, but has anyone attempted a study, asking and exploring questions similar to Oppenheimer’s? What factors, political and / or personal made them change their belief, values and commitment? What influence, if not impact, did this change have on life in the Island? What accounts for their relentless vehemence and virulence? Needless to say, those who were always ‘racists’ form a separate category.
I will be grateful for guidance on such works, if they exist: “and gladly would he learn” (Chaucer, Prologue to ‘The Canterbury Tales’).
*Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan – a retired professor of Commonwealth Literature