Colombo Telegraph

Front Line Socialists Or Sinhala Nationalists?

Gunaratnam Abandons Devolution: Front Line Socialists Or Sinhala Nationalists?

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Despite some grumbling from comrades I kept up hope that the JVP breakaway faction, now the Front Line Socialist Party (FLSP), would overcome the two birth defects of the JVP – infantile adventurism and narrow Sinhala nationalism. Both have been widely written about and that relieves me of responsibility of producing a summary here. I intend to write today from within the FLSP’s own avowed standpoint, a Marxist paradigm, but I will not assume the reader is familiar with this background. Many people outside the cognoscenti are not familiar with the Marxist position on these issues to judge from the asinine comments that proliferate about Marx, Lenin, the national question (NQ), ultra-leftism and Marx’s crisis or catastrophe theory. Nevertheless rising curiosity in this nexus of persons and issues is recognition of its central relevance to a collapsing world. It is the NQ that will be my focus today and neo-liberalism, socialism and the like, only to the extent that they intrude upon the discussion.

What motivates this piece is a Premakumar Gunaratnam interview by Peter Boyle of website Links, “an international journal of socialist renewal” based in Australia. Gunaratnam is one of two FLSP leaders abducted by the Lankan state and tortured in a secret location, but rescued from assassination by the Australian High Commissioner. He holds an Australian passport and was hurriedly deported. The interview includes an account of the abduction and leaves the reader in no doubt who is behind this and similar white van abominations now commonplace in Lanka.

Though hopeful of some progress I never had expectation that a JVP off-shoot could gain a thorough Marxist understanding of self-determination. It seems to be beyond the grasp of even leading Tamil politicians, so what can you expect from a JVP rump? The inanities that Sumanthiran serves up as “internal and external self-determination” in Groundviews are a reminder that being a TNA leader does not ensure you have a clue about fundamentals. Though not asking for expertise from Gunaratnam and the FLSP I certainly was not prepared for a big let down. He has dashed hope that the FLSP could escape from narrow minded Sinhala nationalism and grasp what underlay Lenin’s exploration of the national question. I know that the FLSP follows these discussions with interest and this one reason for writing this piece.

Not even devolution!

I will dissect the Gunaratnam interview piece by piece; here is the first quotation.

QUOTE: “Unlike the JVP, we in the FLSP believe that there is national oppression of the Tamil people and the Muslim people. But in the present circumstances in Sri Lanka we do not believe accepting self-determination or devolution of power for the Tamil majority areas will help to solve the national question. On the contrary, it will worsen the situation. At the same time we believe that there is a national oppression against the minority communities”. END QUOTE.

What unmitigated balderdash! The minorities are oppressed but the way in which this can be mitigated, that is devolving power to enable them to manage their own affairs, is ruled out. Forget Marx, Lenin, Rosa and the whole blithering pantheon, this defies simple logic and commonsense. The chauvinist bandwagon does not tie itself up in such silly knots. Chauvinists are straightforward; they say there is no oppression, there is no national problem, what are the bloody Tamils snivelling about; logically consistent, though politically dishonest. Neither do the Rajapakses put their feet in their mouths so blithely; in their view they liberated the Tamils. Oppression! What oppression?

You could have knocked me down with a feather to hear this featherbrain come down so hard against devolution; just plain simple devolution! Devolution mind you is simply the decentralisation of power and administration to lower levels, to the people. Devolution means reducing centralisation in favour of the grassroots. This from a frontline socialist is unbelievable! I did not expected the FLSP to accept self-determination, but that it opposes common or garden devolution raises concerns of whether there is any theoretical depth in the movement at all. The JVP was born in the gory glory days of Stalinism; it is an intellectual child of centralisation, state power and state control; maybe that’s part of the explanation.

However there is a more important spring from which the JVP/FSLP difficulty flows. Ask about strengthening the powers of workers, rural people, the grassroots, support for such devolution will be enthusiastic. However they cringe when the proposal is to devolve power to Tamils, Muslims and Upcountry Tamils. “No-No” when it is devolution to minority communities, but “Yes-Yes” when it is on a class basis. The cat is out of the bag; deep inside, the Frontline is no different from the JVP, narrow Sinhala nationalists in red shirts and Che Guevara caps.

Nevertheless, I have never called the JVP chauvinist and I do not call the FSLP chauvinist either. Their nationalism is of the passive type – unwillingness to stand up for the rights’ of minorities and an inability to understand the minority mind because of their own cultural insularity. The active type of chauvinism that does positive harm to minorities is the domain of DS, SWRD, JR and the Rajapakse siblings; but that is a well known story and needs no elaboration here.

Gunaratnam versus Lenin on socialism

Gunaratnam lays out his ideological perspective in the two quotations that follow:

QUOTE: “We believe a solution should be based on democracy and equality but it is not going to be a reality under the present neo-liberal capitalism. And also a solution should be able to unite the different national communities but not to divide them. Division of nationalities means division of oppressed classes. It doesn’t strengthen the class struggle but courses further weakening. We do not encourage the drawing of vertical national lines but work towards uniting proletarians of different national communities for the sake of advancing the class struggle”. END QUOTE.

QUOTE: “We should practice a socialist program instead (of) a social-democratic program. In Sri Lanka there are (a) number of unfinished democratic revolutionary objectives, including the national question, which has to be accomplished under socialism. The FLSP believes that an effective and practical political program should be implemented to unite the working class and the peasants among different national communities”. END QUOTE

At the outset I said my task was to deconstruct Gunaratnam’s from the standpoint that the FLSP has adopted as its own paradigm, what it would in its own words call Marxism-Leninism. How do these assertions of Gunaratnam measure up against what his accredited guru Lenin says? Precisely the opposite! Gunaratnam wants the minorities to wait till the dawn of the golden age of socialism at which time all their tears will be washed away and all their misery resolved. Lenin took precisely the opposite view; he called for recognition of the right to self-determination of minority nations as an immediate demand for unifying working class struggles for liberation from capitalism, with the struggle of nations seeking emancipation from Great Russian chauvinism.

A national liberation movement of a minority nation was for Lenin an essential and inseparable part of the socialist revolution. He went so far as to say minority nations would mobilise against Great Russian chauvinism under bourgeois leaders and this movement against Great Russian chauvinism, notwithstanding its bourgeois democratic character, was historically progressive and an ally of the revolution. Gunaratnam goes to the opposite side; even if a minority mobilises for national liberation within a “social democratic programme”, an alliance must be rejected. The only explanation for such ridiculous Sinhala nationalism on the part of a “frontline socialist” is that he must have learnt his socialism form a certain Mr Wijeweera.

Replace Great Russian chauvinism by Sinhala chauvinism, replace Tsarist autocracy by the autocratic Rajapakse state, and replace the bourgeois leaders of the minority nations in Russia by the traditional leaderships of the Tamil, Muslim Upcountry Tamil communities, and you have a near exact replica of Lenin’s model. This FLSP rote-learned Marxists can’t fathom. Lenin sought an alliance of minority nations and the working class to make revolution, Gunaratnam wants the minorities to wait till after the revolution to find relief from their oppression. Lenin insisted that the demand for self-determination of minority nations against Tsarist autocracy was progressive; Gunaratnam declares the demand even for regional autonomy by Lanka’s minorities against the Sinhala-Budhist state (currently the Rajapakse regime), to be an abhorrence. Gunaratnam and Lenin are polar opposites in their comprehension of the national question and their perspective of how to strengthen the revolutionary alliance between classes and nations.

Indian goni billas and neo-liberal monsters

QUOTE: “Devolution of power is a slogan imposed by India. We don’t want to divide the country into ethnic territories. We won’t oppose any form of democratic reform. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the government are pushing power devolution but we are going to explain to the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala people that this is not a solution for the national question”.  END QUOTE.

QUOTE: “Imperialist powers, including India, preach and encourage so-called devolution of power and self-determination according to their political agenda in the region. But at the same time we oppose the unitary state concept, as it further widens the differences between different national communities. Both unitary and federal state structures represent the same neo-liberal capitalism at present”. END QUOTE.

So it is the Indians not the Tamils of Jaffna, Vavuniya and Batticoloa who are asking for devolution and freedom to administer their own affairs? In what planet does Mr Gunaratnam live – it must be somewhere much further than Australia, it must be Mars. And suppose it could be shown (Mr Guaratnam should take a trip or organise a referendum) that Tamils in the north and east of Lanka desire devolution, what then, will he change his tune? As for the third quotation I can’t make head or tail of it; he is against the unitary state, the federal state, devolution and what else? I am convinced the chap does not know what he is talking about.

A few comments about neo-liberalism and imperialism and I will wind up. Neo-liberalism is finished, it has collapsed in the West; Gunaratnam is shadow boxing against an imaginary enemy. Neo-liberal ideology has been bankrupted by history and vanquished by events –Fukuyamais the biggest joke in town. Gunaratnam is tilting at windmills as sate-capitalism creeps over the banking and financial sectors in the West. The command and control centres of Eurozone finance capital are the consultations of European state leaders, the European Central Bank and the European Council. The American recovery is faltering and come Obama-again or Romney, it does not matter, the future of the US economy will depend less and less on the “free” market. The New Depression has killed neo-liberalism as a global ideology, so what is Gunaratnam talking about? Yes, I agree the Rajapakses have set out on a corrupt, nepotistic and pro-capitalist road that is doomed, but that’s another story.

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