By Kumar David –
Musings on the occasion of the LSSP’s 81-st birthday: Left must coalesce into one party!
Next Sunday, 18 December is the eighty-first anniversary of the formation of the LSSP. Wikipedia says five were present at the meeting (NM, Colvin, Leslie, Philip and his brother Robert) but I think there must have been others, perhaps in the shadows, names lost in the mists of time. Nor have I been able to ascertain where they met – must find out. The LSSP has had its golden moments (freedom struggle, Bracegirdle, Hartal) and at times has fallen on rocky roads. Crucially, international conditions were not conducive for a Marxist-inclined or a left social-democratic government to emerge in any democracy of ex British Imperial origin. Arguably the nearest was the post-war Atlee government in the UK itself whose fame rests on the son of a Welsh coal miner and leader of the Labour-left, Aneurin Bevan, who founded the National Health Service and was crafted the post-war welfare state.
NM’s guru was Harold Laski of LSE whose other star pupils were Krishna Menon and Pierre Treadu and who deeply influenced Nehru. Laski’s influence in India is far greater, in line with the deeper intellectual traditions of that country, than in Lanka. Nehru promoted the Harold Laski Institute of Political Science in Ahmadabad in 1954 though he never was a student of Laski – Nehru graduated with honours in science from Trinity College, Cambridge, and then read law in London. Laski is reported to have said of his protégée “NM is the best person to be prime minister of Ceylon”, so Ajith Samaranayake entitled his piece when NM passed away “The best prime minister Sri Lanka never had”. Of one thing we can be certain, had the LSSP formed a government with NM at its head, this country would not have been drenched in blood the way it has been for thirty years. Laski was a Marxist, Bevan a left social-democrat; both suffered at Atlee’s rightist hand. In practical matters the LSSP leaders were Bevanite and Laskite, intellectually they oriented to Marx and Trotsky; a fitting dichotomy for their times.
Photo – Brace Girdle, Colvin and Samasamajists
Back to the future
In August this year the LSSP Majority Group (MG) which I support, together with like minded tendencies in the CP and Bahu’s wing of the NSSP, held an all day symposium to take stock of prevailing trends and plan how to work together. I had the privilege of making a presentation and was concerned about sectarianism, weakness in left unity and the absurdity of parties that agree 101% on analysis, the current situation, and what needs to be done, but are paralysed by an inability to get together.
MG will commemorate the LSSP 81-st on 15 December; so a brief introduction to MG. It was the outcome of a revolt because Tissa Vitarana so abjectly capitulated to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s shenanigans. Tissa like Vasu wished to hang on to a cabinet post and damn political sense. The lowest point was when Vitarana, Vasu and DEW voted in favour of the 18th Amendment when MR read them the riot act: “I will throw you out of Cabinet”. MG was a mutiny against capitulation by the “official” Vitarana minority wing which still remains in control the party machinery. MG’s leaders are: Lal Wijenayake, Secretary, Jayampathy Wickramaratne, MP and constitution drafter and Prof Vijaya Kumar, intellectual and theoretician who I dissuaded from a watery finale some 40 years ago. The MG people are a cut above Vitararna and his retinue in integrity, motivation and intellect. The Dead Left, in every way, is but a dull residue beside the MG, the CP dissidents and the NSSP’s Bahu wing.
Sectarianism or left unity?
Trotsky famously remarked “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat”. Had he been living in Lanka at this time and seen the divisions and squabbles among the left parties he would have held his head in horror. The plain fact is that the crisis of the left in Lanka is its division into dozens of fragmented sects each with a General Secretary, a PB, CC, OB, AB, BC, and CD! Some sects don’t have enough members to fill a minibus!
The antidote, let me be perfectly explicit, is not united fronts, common platforms etc but ONE SINGLE PARTY! I most certainly include the JVP, Siritunga’s USP and other left currents in this call. The JVP must be especially blamed as it has the clout to take the lead in left unification but lacks the theoretical confidence to do so. The programme of the single party must emphasise social democratic tasks not early twentieth century “building the revolutionary party” or heroic role of “professional revolutionaries” illusions. This was Marx’s way of moving with real material forces as they change; this is Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development. The core principle of the left in Lanka, in the context of the global economic and socio-political reality, must begin by eschewing sectarianism, dissolving irrelevancies and forming one left party, a trend that is emerging in some European countries.
The obstacles are mainly subjective; the chief obstacle is NOT long outdated ideological and theoretical historical baggage BUT personal ambitions. Theoretically, how relevant today is the division between Stalinism and Trotskyism, or this or that international that gives a little pocket money or the occasional air-ticket? No, the problem is this: If say five parties unite there cannot be five General Sectaries, a Politbureau of 45 and a Central Committee big enough to fill Town Hall? This is the main obstacle. These personal ambitions, not outdated ideologies are the true obstacle. In truth there are no theoretical divisions sufficient to justify different left political entities. The other big obstacle is property – headquarters buildings and bank accounts. What irony! What Marxists!
Unification of the European left was delayed till the second generation of leaders died and a third with fresher minds took over – Syriza’s Alexix Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias of Spain’s Podemos are only 42 and 38, respectively. It is true that Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are in their 70s but they are only symbols of a new political scene; the reality is the youthful profile of the activists. In Lanka, after the current second generation leadership passes away, a third less sectarian crop may, ne hopes emerge. The longevity of Bala Tampoe suggests however that we may have a long wait.
This is not only tongue in cheek humour about my erstwhile comrades; there is a serious side. Another ten years without a generational overturn in the leadership of the “new” left parties will be a calamity. The JVP had a generational overturn a few years ago which has improved its image but its sectarianism, its refusal to candidly discuss it errors of 1971 and 1989-90, and its refusal to rectify a wrong headed attitude to Tamil demands for devolution will always stunt it.
Need for a Programme
In the immediate context unity is necessary to collectively push for completion of constitutional reform, arrive at a solution to the national question and oppose moves to privatise non-loss making enterprises. We must oppose the imposition of an IMF sponsored neo-liberal agenda – neo-liberalism is still not 100% dead. Above all we have to ensure that the aims of the Jan.8th movement of enhancing democracy, opposing fresh attempts to restrict media freedom and fight corruption (corruption is continuing albeit on a reduced scale to raise its head under the new regime). The left, logically, should provided leadership to the Jan. 8th movement but the Dead Left’s total subordination to MR paved the way for civil society to assume leadership. While the CP has been able to largely unite both its groups and appears to be gradually distancing itself from MR, there is no such initiative in the LSSP’s Tissa Group, which has officially aligned itself with GL’s Sri Lanka Podujana Pakshaya. The need for the left to take a strong stand on the issues of the day based on the political positions they held in the past is crucial.
However recent developments do not seem to augur well for the future. The present government is under intense pressure from business leaders, bourgeois economists and international bodies to adopt a certain type of economic strategy. There is no counter strategy being put forward by the left; we are giving the bourgeois strategists a walk over. Here is an example of what they are saying; this is a quotation from “renowned economist” and Institute of Policy Studies Chairman Professor Razeen Sally – Daily Mirror Business section 26 July 2016. “So far the government hasn’t come up with a credible plan for reforming the economy whether it be on taxation and expenditure as well as other important issues like freeing up the business climate domestically and liberalising Sri Lanka’s trade and foreign investments”. He goes on to complain about “public spending increases, salary increases and more expenditure increases on the way”. This is not partisan propaganda but serious bourgeois political-economy; if the left does not like it, it must propose an alternative which it has not formally done.
To be pragmatic one has to be real, that is take the facts on the ground seriously. The private sector, that is domestic capitalism, is not investing. Money is available; banks are not squeezing big and medium size firms; a more capitalist friendly administration than Ranil’s UNP is naïve for Sally and Lanka’s capitalists to dream about. Still political and business uncertainty holds them back. This is fact number 1 and fact number 2 is that foreign investment is not pouring in – not only here but global investment flows have frozen. Trump has damned US investors seeking foreign pasture. Let’s face it domestic and foreign private capital is not powering ahead with investment, job creation and business activity overseas. That is the nature of the times even if Ranil rushes headlong to fulfil Sally’s wish-list.
Consequently the government is faced with the stark option that the state must assume an active and interventionist role. This goes against the mother’s milk of ‘Leave it to the private sector; the private sector is the true engine of growth’ mantras on which Ranil-Malik-Eran-Harsha have been natured. Now they have no option but to concede that things are not going that way. The State, the Administration, leaders (our Lee Kwan Yews and Deng Xio Pings) have no choice but to be pulled by the ear, taken by the scruff, and kicked on the bum into adopting an interventionist economic stance. Then the question is can this government jettison its mother’s milk and turn interventionist? Difficult but not impossible; when their backs are to the wall, as we say in Tamil, “kuthiraiku kundi kanjal vaikalum thinum” (when the going gets tough a horse will even eat straw). Capitalisms crisis is global and an alternative programme is being evolved by a united left.