19 July, 2024


Hector Abhayavardhana & The Politics Of The Left

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Review of Hector Abhayavardhana: Selected Writings – Social Scientists’ Association, 2001, 415 pages, LKR 800

Over the last few decades, the Social Scientists’ Association has published a number of significant books. Their prices don’t reflect their value, and their value far exceeds their prices. Through them the SSA has made an indelible contribution to the intellectual climate of this country, even if that climate seems to be thinning out today.

Founded in 1977, the Association counted among its ranks the likes of Kumari Jayawardena, Newton Gunasinghe, and Jayadeva Uyangoda, drawn from such fields as history, sociology, and political science. Though predominantly concerned with issues of identity and ethnicity, over the years it contributed much to discussions of class and caste.

Among its seminal publications were Kumari Jayawardena’s studies of the labour movement and elite formation in Sri Lanka, Newton Gunasinghe’s forays into social relations in Kandy, and Senake Bandaranayake’s excursions into archaeology and art history. Not all of these are out of print, but many of them are. Among those no longer available is a collection of essays by Hector Abhayavardhana. I discovered my copy – its spine slightly torn off – with much difficulty. At LKR 800, the price seems to have been worth the trouble.

The blurb informs us that Abhayavardhana’s life “was an eventful one.” So it was. The grandson of an Anglican pastor, Abhayavardhana obtained a middle-class, Westernised, colonial education at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. By the 1930s when he graduated from the University of Ceylon, he had converted to Marxism, spurning his inheritance and espousing radical politics. The timing was right. The election of the second State Council in 1936 saw a dramatic shift in Left politics. With the emergence of a number of Left activists, including N. M. Perera, a strong Opposition crept up. The previous year these stalwarts had formed the LSSP. Abhayavardhana became an active supporter.

When asked why he joined the Communist Party in the US, Dalton Trumbo simply replied, “in such a world and such a time, it was not madness to hope for the possibility of making a better sort of world.” Abhayavardhana became a theoretician of the LSSP in that world, at that time, and with that hope. A colonial plantation enclave for more than 150 years, Sri Lanka had never undergone a bourgeois democratic revolution. For me, the LSSP’s biggest, most important contribution to Sri Lankan politics was its recognition of this historical fact. As its main theoretician, Abhayavardhana’s contribution was thus seminal.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part concentrates on Abhayavardhana’s writings on Indian society and politics. Abhayavardhana formed part of a cohort of LSSPers who, in response to the wartime ban imposed on the party by the colonial government, fled to India and founded the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India. In the introduction he notes that “[t]he need for a revolutionary party sprang from the absence of a revolutionary leadership in India.” This is a salient point, but it was truer of Sri Lanka than of India. Abhayavardhana himself admits this: when critiquing Nehru, for example, he contends that the anti-colonial resistance organised by the Congress Party did foment a mass uprising.

“It will thus appear that Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s surrogate for the national democratic revolution which was necessary to unify her people, modernize her economy and democratize her state. In a superficial, partial and provisional way he carried out each of these tasks. … He was the symbol of national unity.”

The critique is implied in the praise. Nehru, Abhayavardhana admits, “had no revolution behind him which could mobilize the activity of the masses.” Yet despite this, he was far ahead of his counterparts in Ceylon, who not only were content with British rule but had to be compelled by the government to grant the masses their right to vote. Though the BLPI and the socialist tendencies within the Congress Party broke ranks with Nehru, going as far as to call him a traitor to their cause, Abhayavardhana admits that he could still inspire and mobilise mass resistance against the colonial government.

This was more than what one could hope for with the Ceylonese bourgeoisie. Whereas the Indian bourgeoisie could support opposition to imperialism while benefitting from it, the Ceylonese elite identified their interests with colonial rule, as publicly admitted by James Pieris in 1908. This did not absolve the Indian bourgeoisie and the Congress leadership of their limitations, however: as Abhayavardhana notes in an essay on Gandhi,

“Neither the charkha manoeuvre of Gandhi, nor the communal manoeuvre of imperialism can halt for one single moment the process of the class struggle. And though the Mahatma may refuse to recognize the class struggle, the class struggle never fails to recognize the Mahatma… He continually warns against ‘violent and bloody revolution.’ He preaches (to the poor masses, to be sure!) ‘voluntary abdication of riches and the power that riches give.’ Meanwhile he advises the masses to live at peace with their masters.”

The problem with the Congress Party was that its methods weren’t radical enough to fit the needs of its objectives. The problem with the Ceylon National Congress was different. There neither the methods nor the objectives fit in with the needs of a society on the verge of a revolution. In Part II Abhayavardhana’s essays delve into these aspects of Sri Lankan society, as well as the bourgeoisie and their lack of revolutionary potential.

Here an important point needs to be made. In foraying into local society, Abhayavardhana and his colleagues covered much ground for later scholars, including anthropologists. This point has not, I feel, been appreciated enough, but even a cursory reading of his essays will show that the LSSP’s leading theoretician was providing insights on local, specifically rural, society, far ahead of the scholarship of his time. On the antagonism between Sinhalese and Tamil communities, for instance, he makes a valid and original observation.

“At best, therefore, the petit-bourgeois intelligentsia is endowed with a national consciousness. It does not repudiate the necessity of national unification, but it elevates its own sectional interests above the general interest and conceives of nationhood in terms of the hegemony of the majority over the minority… This explains the insistence of the Sinhala petit-bourgeois on its hegemonic rights over the minorities and the opposition of the Tamil intelligentsia to national unification itself, since in its own mind an integrated nation must inevitably establish the hegemony of the majority.”

Abhayavardhana’s critique of petit-bourgeois consciousness extends to the JVP. Responding to Fred Halliday’s New Left Review essay on the 1971 uprising, he writes,

“This was not a peasant uprising or revolution. It was a revolt of middle-class youth, all of them with school or university education and most of them the sons and daughters of rich or middle peasant homes. They were lured into a conspiratorial plan to overturn the government in the space of 24 hours and they were attracted to the plan because they were desperate from looking for jobs that they could not find – and they were either jobless or weary with jobs that they considered were beneath their educational status.”

Here the author strikes at the heart of the matter. Revolution in Sri Lanka, at least since 1977 when measures began to be taken to cripple the working class, has been defined from a middle-class, petit-bourgeois perspective. This is probably no less true of the 1971 uprising than it is of the revolution we are supposedly living through now.

Throughout this section Abhayavardhana distinguishes between these tendencies and the need for an organised revolution, the sort which the United Front regime attempted to see through in the 1970s. Yet 20 or so years later attitudes began to change dramatically, even within the Left. Abhayavardhana himself shifted, as with most of his colleagues: speaking of the People’s Alliance response to the IMF, for instance, he notes that “The IMF is the sole international bank that you have for governments… We are a looking at the IMF as a bank, not as a government. It is an international bank. You don’t attribute to any banker that you go to meet for a loan that he has governmental powers. The IMF has its rules of lending. So long as you conform to those rules of lending you can exist.”

Reading these lines, it must be remembered that Abhayavardhana lived through three major periods in Left politics in Sri Lanka. In the first phase the LSSP embraced a vanguard strategy, steering clear of coalition politics and charting its own path. In the second phase it realised the limitations of this strategy, owing largely to its lack of support in villages, and abandoned it in favour of one of cohabitation: without abandoning its vanguard structure completely, the LSSP entered into agreements with the SLFP in the hopes of radicalising the latter and thereby fomenting a democratic revolution in the country.

In the third phase, which followed from a long period of UNP rule that effectively crushed the working class, the LSSP entered into several arrangements with a newly constituted SLFP. Under the Third Way Centrist People’s Alliance government and later the Bonapartist Rajapaksa administration, it sought to act as a pressure group within a larger coalition, to varying levels of success. Abhayavardhana’s essays reflect these shifts well. As such they are a gauge, and a good one, of the changing face of Left politics in Sri Lanka.

This book is, for all these reasons, a goldmine. I know that’s a crude way of putting it, but it’s true. It charts the rise of the Old Left, the convulsions it encountered, and the changes it had to graft on its original strategies. As the LSSP’s leading theoretician, Abhayavardhana lived through some of the most tumultuous times in Sri Lanka’s modern history. Unfortunately for us, this book, which provides a glimpse into those times, is no longer available. Whatever copies there are can no longer be easily found. A pity, because a work of this sort should be as widely available as possible. In that sense, I suppose, its loss is ours too.

*The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Nehru once declared that “I have become a queer mixture of East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere.”

    Nehru became a politician for the sake of it. He didn’t have any depth of knowledge of what the right politics for India was. He just had an idea what masses would be carried away with! With his aristocratic background, high caste status and the likes, he would not genuinely serve the common man but only worship the western democracy which was alien to India pre- colonization society. He made a hybrid system for India, and yes, it worked for a while. I do not blame him for that but my point is Nehru was not a man for India’s authentic political needs. That is why India’s PPP average is so low even after 75 years of independence!!

    Now my point is…………There were heaps of people like Hector in [then] Ceylon who would have been influenced by Nehru or whoever, be it HA Colvin, NM, SA, Philip or whoever, they all brought overseas made ‘puddings’ to our “vellavahum වෙල්ලවැහුම් society!!! Did it work??

    You have a look at the last few decades and may come to terms that it did NOT work here……………

    So why do we CELEBRATE them???????????????

  • 1

    Yeah, Mahatma was all about preaching sky-high, but had no active plan to eradicate class and caste struggle in India. Only activity he did was rouse up mass movements of walkathons to show himself as a goody-goody and become a Hindu saint – nothing concrete for the suffering Indian Masses.

    Our Lankans on the other hand, have always agitated splendidly for social change. They were always handicapped however, by the Tamil separatist issue. As a result, Lankan Elite held all the money, and tortured and killed our socialistic Lankans by the cruelest of means…their leaders being paid off. Nowadays however, a greater sense of honor and commitment has emerged between the comrades.

    Although it was the petit-bourgeois that lead the socialist revolutions pre-2000’s, nowadays the rural masses are also very much into democratic socialism. They realize that they too have suffered much under the Colonial-Style Elite who have been continuously consolidating the hard-earned money of their labor, both in the fields, and with their wives and daughters in the labor camps of the Middle East.

  • 0

    Hector Abhayavardhana:

    I had some close interactions with Hector Abhayavardhana during my Peradenis days in 1970.

    Hector was well known as a a leading theoretician of LSSP, it was soon after the United Front consisting of SLFP, LSSP and CP under the leadership of Mrs Srimavo Bandaranaike had achieved a historic victory with more two third parliamentary seats in the 1970 general election.

    . The international scene at that time was very favorable to the progressives. It was immediately after the General election and before the JVPers then known as Chequerists were still within the UF coalition. And before their adventurism commenced towards the end of 1970.

    Hector in this context made some insightful observations perhaps as a way forward for the United Front.

    • 0

      One was the rebellious rural youth have to be kept within the rural settings and not encouraged to migrate to the urban areas. Hector may be influenced by what was happening in China under Chairman Mao at that time. It was before Pol Pot’s adventurism in Cambodia.
      The second was in respect of national question.
      He said that the majoritarian grievances and aspirations were satisfactorily resolved by 1970 and that the majority communities had become confident and magnanimous and that they were ready to make strategic compromises on ethnic issue.

      • 0

        On hindsight we find that Hector was anywhere near prophetic .Countrywide disaster followed and the left was annihilated internationally and nationally and the left is still to recover.
        In 1970,Who could have predicted the collapse of Soviet Union and the onset march of America as the sole super power and the left in hiding everywhere .However I still held him in high esteem. He was a humanist and dreamer than a left theoretician.

        • 0

          “Hector may be influenced by what was happening in China under Chairman Mao at that time. It was before Pol Pot’s adventurism in Cambodia.”
          May one know whatever in Hector’s words reflect “what was happening in China” at the time?
          Hector was too hopeful for the coalition, and overestimated the clout of the LSSP within government.
          Do your own search to find how Sanmugathasan deflated H’s enthusiasm in 1970.

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