17 September, 2021

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NM & Abe Lincoln Pragmatists Or Opportunists? 

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Leave aside the difference in measure – gigantic versus small country – or the nature of the endeavours and try if you can to bridge in your mind the century between the 1850s and the 1960s. I think I can’t ask you to forget that Lincoln succeeded in the Civil War and in proclaiming Emancipation while on both the National Question and the so-called Coalition Tactic to take half a step to socialism, NM and the left suffered setbacks. However both men had a characteristic in common; they made crucial tactical compromises on the way. A pragmatist is one who makes needed compromises but does not lose sight of his principles, an opportunist sells out for narrow gain, and a realist throws up his hands in despair and lives with reduced moral commitments.

Did you know that until the last years of his life Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist? He considered slavery immoral and economically retrogressive but he conceded that it was lawful and constitutional. Technically he was right till the 13th Amendment of 1865 after the Civil War. The American Constitution, up to then, did not explicitly endorse slavery but it did include clauses protecting the institution and Lincoln bowed. It is not possible to justify the ‘lapse’ in terms of values of the times because there existed at the time an Abolitionist Movement led by people like William Lloyd Garrison who demanded that slavery be immediately abolished and that freed slaves be incorporated as equal members of society. Abolitionists called the Constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.” Though Lincoln worked with the abolitionists he was not one of them. Lincoln’s deepest commitment was not to the abolition of slavery but to the preservation of the Union. This is all well-known and you will find what I have said at many sources, for example click here. 

Though Lincoln opposed slavery morally, he did not believe until much later that blacks should have the same social and political rights as whites. During the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas who alleged he supported “negro equality” (like Sinhalese politicians flaying the left: “Rata Demalungta Vikka”) Lincoln defensively declared: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of social and political equality of the white and black races” and he opposed blacks having the right to vote, serve on juries or intermarry with whites. This is hard to reconcile with the Great Emancipator but his views evolved over time. He did want blacks to have the fullest opportunity improve and fulfil themselves and even have their own country. He favoured a separate country being carved out in Central America for blacks: “Given the differences between the two races and white hostility to blacks it would be better to be separated.” – August 1862 statement to a black delegation at the White House. Much earlier, constitution drafter Thomas Jefferson doubted that blacks and whites could live together and advocated a black homeland in Africa for freed slaves – it did take shape eventually as Liberia; Negro Eelam! In 1854 Lincoln wished to free the slaves and send them to Liberia. His epiphany was when the tide of battle turned in the Civil War. In September 1863 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

There is no doubt that all his life Lincoln abhorred slavery and considered it morally repugnant. But he judged till the late the 1850s that the white population would not accept abolition and adopted a pragmatic approach that could yield practical results. This is fascinating; similar but a time-reversed sequence to NM’s retreat on Sinhala Only later in life. In his personal convictions confirmed by my own familiarity (I was a young Samasamajist in the 1950s), NM was firmly committed to the language rights of the Tamils. He was an intransigent advocate of Parity of Status to an extent that many in the LSSP and CP (Philip had sold out by then) – Jack Kotelawala, Robert Gunawardena, Mahanama Samaraweera, Somaweeera Chandrasiri and others who we at the time called turncoats – simply could not comprehend. I know that NM was the clearest advocate of an equitable status for the minorities in the 1950s and he took his stand boldly to the trade unions and the working class. Maybe his training as a constitutionalist helped. Nor was he enamoured of the shilly-shally drivel of Tamil politicians and lawyers; he stood out much bigger than them. Alas the Sinhala electorate was to teach him a bitter lesson. It was not 1952 or 1956, the LSSP and CP did well in both, but the crushing defeats of the March and July 1960 elections that smothered the left. Lincoln won the final lap; NM started out strong but narrow nationalism finally defeated him.

The lesson was painful but abundantly clear and NM Perera, pragmatist per excellence compared to other LSSP leaders, drew it first. No party that fails to advocate the cultural primacy and political hegemony of Sinhala-Buddhism can win political power in Lanka. This has been true for 70 years; the intervention of a civil war hardened it. Lincoln never in his soul accepted slavery, but for the main part of his political life he did not place abolitionism on his programme. NM despised Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism but in the mid-1960s he gave up leading the charge against. There is no way the Left could have turned back the tide of ethno-religious nationalism; history was being written by deep social and historical forces. Hence NM’s decision in the final decades of life to partner with the ‘progressive petty-bourgeoisie; our day has yet to come’. Inability of left ideology to defeat nationalism is best illustrated by the fate of the movement that displaced the LSSP-CP as the left-mainstream in subsequent decades. The JVP could not break from Sinhala nationalism for the first half-century of its existence. Worldwide, class receded to make way for ethnicity (linguistic, racial, cultural or fealty to an extravaganza of gods) as the primary driver of social conflict. Marx forgot to add ethno-national hubris to religion as the world’s bestselling opium.  

This essay must not be misunderstood as an apology for the Lankan left’s accommodation of nationalism (quintessentially leftists are internationalists whatever national pragmatism compels in day to day matters) but I do insist that the ‘old-left’ was pragmatic not opportunist while today’s ‘Dead-Left’ is concerned with what leaders get for themselves; programmes don’t matter. I therefore firmly underline that neither Lincoln nor NM were opportunists in this pejorative sense. There has been scholarship enough to fill libraries about Lincoln and slavery and no judgement that I can add will be useful. I would however ask that my intervention today be read as an honest attempt at the evaluation of two persons in relation to the prevailing conflicts of their times.  

I will conclude with a few personal comments about pragmatism that I trust a few of you will find interesting. Those who do me the honour of reading my column and those who have had the misfortune of personal acquaintance, have some idea of my views. I am an unrepentant Marxist, an internationalist who despises all nationalisms (Sinhala, Tamil, Timbuctoan), who draws strength from materialism, sees culture as a social product, and has trust in dialectics and science. Sometimes I confront the challenge “Marxism is dead and buried; it has no future; see what happened to the Soviet Union?” This is daft; the stuff of superficial minds. Imagine if the crimes of the Burmese Buddhist Army or Narayana Modi’s Hindutva were adduced as evidence that Buddha was a no-good dreamer or Hinduism is a load of crap! My Christian education equips me to play this game even better with the Church. I have no time for imbeciles with no inclination to philosophy or methodology.

But there is a pragmatic point. Socialism will not dawn tomorrow, nor is a classless utopia just over the horizon. Lenin’s brilliant strategy of a party of professional revolutionaries is of zero relevance one hundred years on. Guevara’s thesis is a one-of exception for Cuba. Modern Marxists must be pragmatic in dealing with the actually existing world while retaining their vision. “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you: If you can dream and not make dreams your master: If you can wait and not be tired by waiting”, then dear boy or girl you will make a splendid pragmatist who can strive for decent objectives with good sense. People who are in a hurry to discard ideals actually never had any. Sell-outs are opportunists, simple scoundrels. Marxists must learn to navigate complicated currents between actually existing liberal-democracy and aspirations of equity, between decaying finance-capital and desired social democracy, and seek allies to defeat extremists whether the American Trump-hooligan variety, Asian ethno-religious mobs, or other neo-fascisms elsewhere. When the Lankan regime’s best friends at the UNHRC include Belarus, the Philippines, Egypt, Russia and Venezuela it confounds my dutiful countrymen who venerate patriotism as a sacred obligation.  

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Latest comments

  • 5
    0

    David has a soft corner for Comrade NM.
    But history will be less forgiving.
    *
    “However both men [NM & Lincoln] had a characteristic in common; they made crucial tactical compromises on the way.”
    I would say that very nearly everybody, but absolute dogmatists, makes tactical compromises– crucial or otherwise.
    *
    “It was not 1952 or 1956, the LSSP and CP did well in both, but the crushing defeats of the March and July 1960 elections…”
    The data for votes and seats secured (see below) do not support the story.
    *
    Election…..LSSP Seats…..LSSP votes, %…..CP Seats…..CP votes, %
    1947…………10/28……………..10.8……………………3/13…………..3.73
    1952…………9/39……………….13.11…………………*4/19…………..5.78
    1956…………14/21……………..10.36……………………3/9…………..4.52
    1960 Mar…10/101……………10.7……………………..3/53………….4.85
    1960…………12/21……………..7.31……………………..4/7……………2.03
    1965…………10/25……………..7.47……………………4/9…………….2.71
    1977………….0/82……………..3.61…………………..+0(1)/25……….1.98
    *CP partnered with VLSSP
    +CP won a seat on an election petition
    There was an electoral pact with the SLFP since 1960 July.
    In 1977 there was no electoral pact but bitter hostility.

    • 3
      0

      ps.

      The parliamentary left had no justification to nurse electoral ambitions after 1952, and especially after 1956.
      The LSSP voter base was fairly secure until after 1964 when NM was tempted by a cabinet post. Then on the LSSP relied heavily on electoral deals with the SLFP and a coalition in 1970
      Contrary to Prof. David’s claim, NM in the final decades of life partnered not with “the progressive petty-bourgeoisie” but with the national bourgeoisie (capitalists who had a streak of anti-imperialism in them, at least until 1977).
      *
      NM’s (and the LSSP’s) betrayal of the NLF and the 21 Demands campaign in 1964 was rank opportunism, inevitable when a revolutionary party indulges in electoral politics with illusions of power.
      They were roundly condemned for the betrayal by Edmund Samarakkody, who out of anger committed an error of judgment to help bring down the government in 1964.

      In 1960 July the LSSP made an electoral deal with the SLFP and contested fewer seats. in March 1960 its vote share was larger than in 1956 but that was by contesting more seats.
      Also note that the number of seats rose from around 100 to 150 in 1960 and voting age was reduced from 21 to 18.

    • 1
      0

      SJ,
      In 1956, LSSP and CP had a no contest pact with MEP of SWRD. Bandaranaike

      • 0
        0

        SJ,
        it was not NLF, But ULF-United Left Front formed with LSSP, CP and MEP of Philip Gunewardene.

      • 0
        0

        Whoever said that there was one?

        • 0
          0

          “it was not NLF, But ULF”
          I stand corrected.

  • 0
    0

    Prof Kum! Any politician worth his/her salt would: (1) Assess his/her STRENGTHS and make full use of them; (2) Identify his/her WEAKNESSES and will either overcome or avoid certain situations where weaknesses can be an issue; (3) Seize every OPPORTUNITY to further his/her goals and ambitions; (4) Ward off all identified THREATS. You now try to identify the similarities of Abraham Lincoln and Dr. NM Perera and try to label them as “opportunists” analyzing their actions. Of course! Almost all politicians must be opportunists and be silent where appropriate according to their sense of judgement. One may cite the example of Dudley Senanayake who said in Sinhala that “It is better to lose the elections upon telling the truth rather than winning it through lies”. Earlier you tried to find the dissimilarities of LKY and Gotabaya Rajapakse. I had the occasion to comment that had LKY been alive, and you even transited the Changi airport he would skin you alive for attempting to make a comparison. In Doctoral research, the common facet is to reveal the extent of relationship between entities. Are you trying to get another doctorate to be a double doctor like NM?

    • 0
      0

      GS
      David’s is no doctoral thesis but an analogy drawn based on certain turn of events.
      Contrast between Lincoln and NM is not a fraction as stark as between LKY & GR, with strong dictatorial inclinations. The comment “…he would skin you alive for attempting to make a comparison” is a fair expression of LKY’s intolerance to not just insult but dissent too.
      *
      NM achieved much for the working class and the left movement in the 1930s to make them a strong political force within a few years. I do not consider NM to be much of a Marxist, but a sincere social democrat who erred seriously.
      *
      The Tamil intelligentsia have been obsessed with pet issues like language and denounce the LSSP for betraying them, forgetting that the FP negotiated with SWRDB in 1957 within the framework of the SO Act.
      *
      What NM did during the malaria epidemic in the 1930s could not be matched by the colonial government, because NM correctly identified the central issue as lack of nutrition.
      His failings apart, he stands heads and shoulders above Dudley S, who resorted to vicious communal lies linking the FP and the SLFP to win the July 1960 elections. It was also the Dudley government of March-July 1

      • 1
        0

        Dear SJ

        Thank you. Why did Hon Mrs SWRD did let go of Hon NM in 1975 as her Finale Minister??

        What was the conflict??

  • 5
    2

    A dizzying comparison, perhaps an imagination unbound by realism.

    Whatever it is, the Negros were slaves with a life only slightly better than the farm animals.

    Tamils and Sinhalese ? who is worse off ?

    NM was no revolutionary, he was lucky to have travelled to UK at that stage and be exposed to current (1920s) enlightened thinking, especially in the labour party.

    Back at home, he would have realized the mediocrity all around and just followed reformism. He was one of the few members who read serious books.

    • 2
      0

      DS
      Your ability to oversimplify amazes me.
      Do you have the foggiest idea of what was involved in building up a left trade union ad a party under colonial rule.
      *
      NM came under the influence of Harold Laski (executive member of the socialist Fabian Society) at LSE.
      On return he was a leading activist of the Sooriyamal campaign and later founded the LSSP with Philip G, Colvin R de Silva and SA Wickramasinghe.
      *
      About who is worse off, make inquiries and do some soul searching.

  • 1
    1

    No one can find a politician in Srilanka to come anywhere near to LKY. He had his drawbacks but firm and resolute to achieve his ultimate goal: to make Singapore a first world country. He was fully committed to achieving that goal. He worked 24 hour days and 7 day weeks. He lived a modest life never tolerated bribery and corruption. A Singaporean can travel anywhere in the world carrying a Singaporean Passport proudly and can be assured of an open arm welcome. Unlike the days of the Ceylon Passport, the Srilankan Passport make people shudder.

    • 0
      0

      HP,
      .
      LKyu was bount to law and order. That was the difference. Srilanken leaders dont care much about law and order. THat was the reason why Mr Nagananda Kodithuwakku made every effort to position law and order in the country.
      :
      Be them leaders or just citizens, they should all be caught by law and order. Here we see, Rajapakshes and their henchmen so long they stay in WANDIBATTAYA mode, enjoy impunity as no others.
      :
      Just imagine, knowing that majority of people are ultra fools regardless of their basic education, Rajaakshes apply every trick so to keep their as stupdier as they are, so that they can reap the harvest. One behind the other, there are media displays of cruel nature, sometimes, innocient would loose everything, incl their lives, but merciless buggers by their genetics, dont seem to care.
      :
      Did you all notice that bitch s son, controlled by RAJAPKSHE leadership, by name Dhammikka paniya is reported to have got him vaccinated day before yesterday. So for what purpose the govt promoted that syrup ? What happened to that baggages boys wearing MBBS tiles, but so called state and other ministers? Minister of health is run by Dr Rajitha Senararatne to the best, no matter whatever speculations were there, entire world knew that. Cancer patients were given lot more allowances. However, as of today, Medamulana criminals has made everything upside down… as nothing moves forward.

  • 0
    1

    KD
    Abraham Lincoln and Dr NM Perera strange comparison like Chalk and Cheese.
    Yes! the context is important- 1950 in USA.and 1960 in Sri lanka
    In 1950 USA was a divided country between the industrial North and the Agriculturalist South
    The South supported slavery because you need slaves for agricultural labour whereas the North is in need of free blacks for their industries. A classic Marxist situation.It was a period when USA was expanding and it was the policy of Lincoln that if a slave state is added a non slave state also should be added to keep the status qua.
    The 13A and emancipation of the blacks led to blacks being recruited to the Army and victory of the US forces.
    I could not see any socialism

  • 2
    1

    SJ, Oversimplifying is the theme in these columns, you included.

    I gather NM was financially honest. The society then I am told was less dishonest ( although we established a bribery department in the 1950s)

    I think the British were, as imperial powers go , law abiding and fair. Under them it was perhaps less difficult to establish trade unions and political parties. The violence, corruption and gang rule as is the theme under the locals had not begun yet.

    My question is was NM a Marxist revolutionary ? Has he contributed to the international Marxist literature -like Lenin , Mao, Trotsky , Che Guevara , have done ?

    • 1
      0

      I will make just one point. The other issues are impertinent to what I had to say.
      I never rated NM as a great Marxist.

      • 1
        1

        SJ

        “I never rated NM as a great Marxist.”

        Is it because he had a girl friend in London?
        Is it because NM was not with Mao?
        Is it because NM was not a great fan of Mao’s cultural revolution?

        ….

  • 2
    0

    SJ, furthermore, I find it very interesting that those who inspired those like NM to challenge British imperialism were themselves British, Laski, the labour Party, Webbs etc.Even Marx /Engles were whites, Germans.

    Even Gandhi and Nehru were British trained, made into lawyers to practice English law, were given a wide education by the British, including ideas of democracy, independence. All our higher education is based on European models.We are extremely proud of educational degrees from England.Even MRs children have some British qualification. A degree without any class !

    The Indians never challenged the brutality of the Moguls.Sri Lankans never challenged the cruel South Indian rulers like Sri Wickrema.

    It seems we were in a toper of feudal ideas and limited by our obvious mediocrity.

    NM however good, did not break away from this model. No one has.

    The local culture has no alternative scenario to offer.

    • 2
      0

      Karl Marx himself was German.
      *
      There have always been enlightened individuals from imperialist countries, whom freedom loving people cherish.
      The issue is not one’s colour, race or nationality but what one stands for.
      Are there not Sinhalese standing for justice to Muslims and Tamils?
      Are there not upper caste Hindus who stand by the Dalits in their struggles for social justice?
      *
      The only education we had on offer under colonial rule was European. Do you know that it was the Arabs who took science to Europe?
      *
      The case for NM is not racist but based on his stand for social justice.
      Some Asian Marxist leaders had European wives who identified themselves with the people of the country.
      There were many White men and women who fought in the independence struggles in the first half of the 20th Century.
      They are closer to the hearts of all Asians than any Asian stooge of colonialism

    • 0
      0

      deepthi Silva,

      deepthi Siva, you are right,the liberators often followed their former masters!

      “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”

      Was it Lenin who coined this famous Marxist maxim?
      .
      The oppressors produces the seeds of their own destruction

      You add imperialism to capitalism, it will sound more convincing.

      Yes English produced Gandhi and Nehru and SWRD and NM in Sri Lanka

      French produced Hồ Chí Minh in Vietnam !.

      Anti colonial struggles in Asia Africa and Latin America were led by products of their colonial masters and the countries liberated.

  • 2
    0

    SJ very old fashioned.Arabs took science to Europe? What did they do with science in Arabia ? Greece ,.Rome had no science ? What is science ?

    Asians stooging Colonialism ! What about Indian colonialism, Chinese Colonialism? Good ?Are Sinhalese colonizing Jaffna ? Good? Stooging MR, Ranil, Prabakaran, MGR -good ? So many questions , need to over simplify.

    Who is torturing us now ? The Colonialists !

    All our revolutionaries in the end find refuge in Europe, not in India, China or Saudi Arabia. Why ?

    The truth is painful.

    Could it be that the fault is with us ? Easier to blame the colonialists.

    • 0
      0

      Deepthi,
      “.Arabs took science to Europe? What did they do with science in Arabia ? Greece ,.Rome had no science ? What is science ?”
      Please don’t embarrass yourself in public. Please go read a good history book about Muslim Spain for example. Why do so many stars have Arabic names? Why do we use Arabic numerals?

  • 1
    0

    Old Codger, you mean Romanized Berbers who conquered a good part of Iberia ? Arabs were greatly influenced by the Semites and other older civilizations. It is not as if until the Arabs came Europe was in darkness.Much of human knowledge has very mixed histories, nothing is totally original.

    The great space craft Apollo is Greek in name but the project was American. From the name Apollo you might jump to the conclusion that it was Greece which sent a rocket to the moon ! History , especially that part of the world ( Europe, Middle East)was very fluid.

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