Colombo Telegraph

Nalin Vs Nirmal: Envisioning Real Utopias

By Niranjan Rambukwella

A few months ago Nirmal Dewasiri, the FUTA Convenor, history don and former X-Group was pulling out his hair at the ICES. He was trying, rather unsuccessfully, to understand why he, the X-Group and the progressive Left in general failed to beat Nalin De Silva’s racist and regressive ideas in the battle for public opinion.

He couldn’t have picked a better question to soul search on. The failure to discredit and demolish Jathika Chinthanaya explains many of the structural problems Sri Lanka faces today including minority accommodation, issues of justice and democracy.

Prof. Nalin De Silva

Nirmal argued that Jathika Chinthanaya, Nalin De Silva’s worldview, provided the intellectual foundation for the South’s unwillingness to solve the national problem, fight against authoritarianism and approach a more progressive approach towards political and economic development. In a nutshell, he argued that Nalin’s Chinthanaya  was necessary for Mahinda’s present chinthanya  (as opposed to the 2005 Chinthaya) becoming the terrifying reality it is today.

Pradeep Pieris (recently appointed the Social Scientists Association’s treasurer) disagreed. He compared the bloodbath after a platoon of soldiers died in 1983, with the relative calm post the Dalada Maligawa bombings, when Chandrika urged the nation to be calm. Pradeep argued that political leadership and events more generally had a greater role in influencing the collective consciousness or less grandly long-term public opinion.

His argument raises an interesting counter-factual point that Nirmal must answer. Who would have won the Nalin-Nirmal debate if the war was lost (or rather not won)? Would Nirmal be the Southern public intellectual par excellence if the Sri Lankan Army failed to vanquish the LTTE and stalemate ensued? If events had been very different would the collective consciousness too change?

This is not a new problem. The relationship between history and ideology is not a debate we have the luxury to discuss in any depth. But I cannot agree with Pradeep. I don’t think that is enough. Perhaps the problem was not that ideology is powerless in the face of history but rather that in the 1990s the wrong ideology was deployed in the wrong way.

The Wrong Ideology

There are as many Marxisms as there are other isms in the world today. But the Great Marxist Soul Searching began when it became clear that America, rather than the Soviet Union, created a world closer to Marx’s Utopia. In Sri Lanka this soul searching became angst after the JVP crumbled when their second fatal insurrection failed. This is when Nalin and Nirmal, Jathika Chinthanaya and the post-Marxists of the X-Group came into their own. Where would the Sinhala intelligentsia now place their hopes and their dreams. Where would they build their new intellectual home?

Nalin made a strategic move. He moved away from Marxism and took the very post-modern ideas the X Group would grapple with to develop a regressive, essentialist vision of Sri Lankan society that resonated with the Sinhalas deepest chords. It was a village, wewa and vihara on steroids.[1] But it could be sold as it was clear, concrete and appealing.

What was Nirmal and the Progressive Left’s alternative? Too much post-modernism is the uncharitably short answer. Lots and lots of critique but precious little by way of vision or appeal – there was no real vision of social transformation, no hope  – no narrative of redemption. Quintus Cicero, when writing to his younger brother on the campaign trial, begged him to be liberal with his promises. No one wants to follow a narrative that doesn’t promise a better world, a better society, a better life.

The Liberal Alternative

I don’t like Rawls’ prose or his rather dry approach to political theory. But Rawls succeeds in three ways: he gave us a modern liberalism – a liberalism that can deal with the complexity of modern welfare states and complex, divided societies (at least in theory). He also gave us liberalism based on an instinct that any human can intuitively and almost viscerally access – fairness. But most importantly he almost gave us what Erik Olin Wright calls a “real utopia” – a utopia you can envision, visualize, concretise and almost think possible. In other words, a potential, a credible utopia. Repackaged appropriately, the Veil of Ignorance and Difference Principles (Wikipedia has decent entries on what these are) are wares politicians can sell in democracy’s marketplace.

For Nirmal to beat Nalin in the war of ideas he needs a credible utopia – a vision of Sri Lanka that looks better than Nalin’s and is more credible. Rawls’ liberal egalitarianism is a good starting point. First, it is more credible than a pure Sama Samaja. No one seriously thinks we are going to have a classless society anytime soon. Second, (I can’t believe I’m saying this) liberal egalistarinism is more intuitively appealing than Marxism. Fairness and equality without the crazy dogmatic, often totalitarian outcomes that logically consistent Leftist thinking leads to is rather appealing. Third, no one has really tried to sell liberalism in Sri Lanka. Liberals in Sri Lanka speak a doubly foreign language. They operate almost entirely in English and almost entirely using modes of thinking and speaking that are foreign. Drew Westen’s recent book The Political Brain provides excellent advice. Based on the premise “its not what you say, its what they hear”, he argues that liberals in America don’t appeal to people’s emotions they don’t give their ideas life, narrative or imagery. They speak to the rational brain, while political decisions are largely made by the emotional heart. Liberals have forgotten that when Cicero spoke people said how elegant, how erudite; but when Demosthenes finished speaking citizens marched. Liberalism speaks like think-tank wonks, not like Somapala.

Political ideology cannot be sold only through English speaking seminar series in Colombo 07 and study circles. The battle for modern public opinion is fought in every living room, on 21” screens. Winning the war of ideas requires developing stories that command human resonance, that make sense to any human, that pull at our heart strings.

The Right Ideology, the Right Rhetoric

The Left and the Liberals need to realize they have a great deal in common, and their unity of objectives will only increase with time as the Other (ugly Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and the Rajapaksa Regime) grows stronger. They need to coalesce around what they share together – a thirst for justice and freedom. At this historical juncture, Rawls is probably a good place to start: the veil of ignorance has a deep commitment to equality that should suit the Left and concerns of justice lie at the heart of Rawls’ project. If these two forces can combine and package their ideas well and lead the country to re-imagine their future – to imagine a real utopia, their ability to shape this country’s future will transform, making justice and freedom just that much more feasible.


[1] Since we are in the business of quoting ICES today, for more on Jathika Chinthanaya go and see Harshana Rambukwella’s recent ICES working paper, Reconciling What? History, Realism and the Problem of an Inclusive Sri Lankan Identity

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