By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Liberalism’s strength is that it is the doctrine that corresponds most closely to one dimension of the human condition: the irreducible solitude of the human individual. Its weakness is the flipside: it reflects inadequately, if at all, the social embedding of the human individual; the dissension of being a social and political animal. The two dimensions of the human condition are manifested in two divergent emotional drives: “get off my case, leave me alone” and “let’s do this!”
Liberalism’s social lacunae permits its addressing by two collectivisms, namely culture and solidarity. At the risk of flippant oversimplification, I’d venture to say that insofar as the cultural affiliation is circumscribed, parochial, and inherited rather than freely chosen, it is negative. Insofar as the solidarity is broad and freely chosen, it is positive.
Contemporary liberalism turned its back on the correctives such as the work of TH Green which yielded social liberalism. If social liberalism had survived, it could have prospered after the fall of collectivist-statist socialism. Instead, the vacuum was filled by religion, race, and tribe; by angry collectivisms devoid of the rationality and universality of the earlier brand of angry collectivism, namely socialism. Thus Che Guevara was supplanted by Osama Bin Laden.
Having lost not merely the promise of social liberalism, but also the anti-establishment heroism of early modern liberalism as it found itself in the saddle in post socialist Russia and Eastern Europe, liberalism was soon supplanted or succeeded by neo-conservatism and/or aggressive forms of cultural radicalism.
SWRD Bandaranaike’s was not the conservative liberalism of an Edmund Burke, the foremost ideological enemy of the French revolution. The UNP that SWRD rejected, ruptured with and overthrew in the famous Silent Revolution of ’56, was Burkean. SWRD was far more in the tradition of Burke’s scourge and debunker, Tom Paine, the radical liberal or populist liberal democrat and a tragic Romantic hero.
In the global South, especially in the Philippines and parts of Latin America, liberals have long espoused the national cause, the cause of national sovereignty and unification as against imperialism, neocolonialism, secessionism and provincialism. Sadly, in Sri Lanka however, liberalism and nationalism are not siblings but polarities, antipodes. The result is that as in the USA, India and Israel over recent decades, a neoconservative religious Right has been growing in Sri Lanka.
The collective consciousness of the Sri Lankan political class has long been divided, and remains divided in accordance with attitudes to 1956. The basic divide is between those who hold that 1956 was good, positive, progressive, and those who think the opposite.
While this corresponds, loosely speaking, with the center-right/center-left, UNP/anti-UNP divide, it does not do so exactly because of one major exception. Anyone who was present at or watched the telecast of President Premadasa’s courageous speech to parliament at the time of the impeachment crisis would recall references to SWRD Bandaranaike, the conspiracy of the elite against him and identification with his tragic fate.
Apart from the major fault-line that runs through the Sri Lankan political class between those who hold that 1956 was a Great Leap Forward of, for and by the nation, and those who believe it was the Great Fall, there is a subdivision within those of the Sri Lankan political class who hold that 1956 was a progressive pivotal moment. This second fault-line is between those who hold that the ethno-religious turn of 1955-1956 was necessary, inevitable, positive, and should be returned to or emulated, and those who do not.
This fault line falls along the attitude to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957. Those who are uncomfortable with or frankly oppose the B-C pact are the neoconservatives of today, within and around the various tendencies of the real Opposition. On the other side of the fault-line are those who extend critical support to the 1956 moment and legacy, while being sympathetic to Bandaranaike’s striving for rapprochement with his Tamil counterpart in 1957.
This school of thought was best represented by Vijaya Kumaratunga and the SLMP in its heyday, and the Left that was allied with him. That social democratic stream hardly exists today, except in the form of Vasudeva Nanayakkara and his DLF, the LSSP, the CPSL and the SLMP— a Left which is but a sliver and shadow of its former self.
Why hasn’t the Left become the default option, picking up where liberalism, nationalism and social democracy parted company, abandoned each other in post-Independence Sri Lanka? Unlike the early Maoists and Rohana Wijeweera, the JVP and FSP do not grapple with 1956 and are silent on it as well as on SWRD Bandaranaike. But this is at the politico-ideological level.
The question I posed takes us deeper than that, into the labyrinth of culture, and into the deep cave, in the Platonic-Socratic metaphor, of ontology in general and ‘political ontology’ (as Zizek puts it) in particular.
There are ways of being Sri Lankan, but that’s a little difficult it seems. More pressingly pertinent is our choice of ways of being Sinhalese.
It is a story of a cultural misidentification—a tragedy of a marriage that was and one that wasn’t. Two contending political streams of progressivism worldwide, namely liberalism and leftism, are movements of cultural modernity, even when they tap into historical traditions of resistance (as the Filipino Liberals turn to Jose Rizal). In Ceylon, both liberalism and the Left were urban and cosmopolitan and stayed aloof of national culture.
As a reaction, when the largely monolingual educated native sons of the new left were at their most militant, they were most influenced by the backward cultural tendencies of the ‘monarchic monastic’ mythologizing mode, as represented by Gunadasa Amarasekara, Nalin de Silva and Jathika Chinthana as it was to be called, rather than the path-breaking, brilliant Sinhala modernity of Siri Gunasinghe.
The wonderful wave of Sinhala modernity in cinema, theatre and music of the 1970s and 1980s failed to fertilize the nativist left and patriotic progressives, with the brief exception of Wijeweera turning up at Khemadasa’s “Magey Kaalaye Mavuni” performance at Ladies College Hall, and the Nandana Marasinghe-Kelly Senanayake-Sunila Abeysekara-Indika Gunawardena grouping which was soon expelled from the JVP. Nandana Marasinghe was assassinated by the JVP in 1987.
The cultural tragedy of the Sinhala educated patriots, progressives and Left was not that they Sinhala educated, but that they chose Cain over Abel, if not Barabbas over Jesus: Gunadasa Amarasekara over Siri Gunasinghe. But then again, perhaps it was inevitable that a Sinhala educated Left and progressive movement would be Gunadasa Amarasekara-ist and Nalin de Silva-ist, rather than Siri Gunasinghe-ist, because it takes a bilingual education to be Siri Gunasinghe-ist.
To deploy two characters in Siri Gunasinghe’s stellar novel, Hevanalla (‘Shadows’)– and it tells me a great deal about our arts and culture that no one made Hevanalla into a film– our tragedy is that the Sri Lankan anti-imperialist resistance movement is a collective ‘Jinadasa’ rather than a collective ‘Wijepala’, or much more Jinadasa than Wijepala. To grossly oversimplify, Jinadasa is a Cain to Wijepala’s Abel, or Jinadasa is a Mr. Hyde while Wijepala is a Dr. Jekyll (though they are two individuals who do not coexist in the same body). Jinadasa represents a (conflicted) backwardness and barbarism—Karl Marx’s “idiocy of rural life”– Wijepala represents reason, civility, modernity and the urban. In our social conscience and consciousness, or in our society and collective sub-consciousness, Jinadasa dominates Wijepala. In what they choose to call the ‘patriotic’ or ‘National Movement’, the “Children of ‘56” are all Jinadasa’s sons and daughters, not Wijepala’s; all Gunadasa’s, not Siri Gunasinghe’s.
Though the JVP and FSP would protest that this indictment may be true of the Sinhala nationalists but isn’t true of them, in an ontological sense only Jinadasa’s offspring could engage in, countenance or not rise up rebelliously against university ragging, while Wijepala’s would not and could not.
The celebrated writer Ian McEwan rightly regards John le Carre as “perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the twentieth century in Britain”. The spymaster George Smiley (a boyhood acquaintance introduced by my father) was Le Carre’s most iconic character. Smiley explains to his adult life’s motivation to his once young and cavalier, now white-haired, protégé Peter Guillam, at the end of le Carre’s latest work, A Legacy of Spies (2017):
“Arguably it was misplaced. Certainly it was futile. We know that now. We did not know it then…If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.”
As of Europe for Smiley, so also Sri Lanka for some of us, for our tribe, many long dead, and of which there are so few survivors. It was a socially, culturally and civilizationally unattainable ideal, the pursuit of which we still persist in, like Camus’ vision of Sisyphus walking back down the hill having rolled his stone up to the summit and placed it precariously, yet again.
Why then am I still an optimist? For three basic and utterly interrelated reasons.
Firstly, unlike some ex-military men and former officials on the Sinhala Far Right whose irrationality and ignorance are as aggressive as they are conspicuous, the strategic imperative of political reconciliation with the Tamils is clearly understood by better educated, better read senior officers, both serving and retired. Former Army Commander Gerry de Silva, who topped the foreign students’ batch at Sandhurst, commanded the Vadamaarachchi operation in 1987, was Army commander during the liberation of Jaffna in 1995 and later served as our High Commissioner to Pakistan, shed more light than most on the need as well as the best formula for reconciliation, in a recent interview:
“If we do not reconcile with all, the Tamils, all of this will go by the boards, if they still do not get a package for the people. It is true that they were discriminated against and they have to be looked after. How the problem started must be analyzed and that problem must be approached and one must attempt to solve it. The Governments, although they have said that they would bring about a package of devolution two years after the end of the war, now almost eight years after the end of the war, there is still nothing…Whatever said and done, in the future we have to live with all communities. We have to accede to their requests. Of course, they should be reasonable requests and we should not accept the fact that they want a separate State. Some sort of package of devolution where we will keep them happy and they have some sort of autonomy must be given, so something must be worked out. We have still not done that. Till then we will have a lot of disgruntled people. Every day is a day too late.”
Secondly, the national, i.e. internal, social situation will yield a 1956, probably in 2020, if not sooner. The dominant elite of the Neoliberal Right will either be dethroned pre-election, from above and within (leveraging the Bond Scam report) or from below and without, after the Local Government election results and culminating in an macro-electoral revolution in 2019-2020.
Thirdly, the regional and international situation, i.e. the external situation, will demand a new 1957 (the B-C pact), which will have to be accommodated if the gains of the new 1956 and indeed the unity of Sri Lanka, are to be defended.
So, to echo the sentiment of Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard, we shall have to change if we are to remain the same. And to recall what the highly educated representative of the Vatican to France told me “don’t try to force the time; reality will impose itself.” Thus as a Realist, I am optimistic about a progressive outcome, in the long term and the final analysis.