26 February, 2024


On The Current Debate Among Left Intellectuals 

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

For a country with a deep crisis, galloping poverty and a very significant Left (JVP-NPP and FSP), there is a paradoxically thin contribution by the leftwing intelligentsia. This can be contrasted by a cursory glance at the volumes of back issues of the Lanka Guardian which would illustrate the far thicker contribution by leftwing intellectuals in the 1980s (not to mention earlier decades).  

Another contrast between today and the 1980s is that there are hardly any debates on the political Left, though the conspicuous Left formations could do them.  

Left Debate 

Therefore, the current contribution by the left intellectuals has to be greatly valued. I refer (in no particular order) to Kumar David, Rajan Phillips, Ahilan Kadirgamar, Devaka Gunawardena, Uditha Devapriya, Shiran Ilanperuma and Kanishka Gunawardena. I would have included Kusum Wijetilleke whose contribution is stellar but would qualify more as progressive or ‘left-leaning’ than ‘leftist’ in terms of his concerns and framework. 

Kumar David is seniormost and sui generis, Rajan Phillips’ framework is more broadly left-liberal than left, Ahilan writes regularly and invaluably on economics. Kanishka writes all too infrequently. 

This leaves the troika of Devaka-Uditha-Shiran to debate political issues from a left perspective. Despite their palpable intelligence, the fact that you don’t need the fingers of even one hand to count these left intellectuals who write for publication in English is a sad state of affairs, given the volume of thinking-through the Left needs to do and is not being done. 

Over several weeks Devaka, Shiran and Uditha have been engaged in a most important debate over a cluster of related issues. These include Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, liberal civil society and anti-imperialism. 

Each writer has tried to grapple with each of these issues but running like a subterranean stream beneath it all is a debate, more implicit than explicit, on a progressive political perspective and left strategy. 

I am not saying that the attempt of each of these writers to come to grips with each of these issues is but a screen for a polemic on strategy. I am saying that these intrinsically valuable explorations of each subject and the attempt to construct a framework for oneself and others, also has an important dimension of political strategy and therefore an enhanced value. 

I may be engaged in oversimplification or simply in error, but it seems to me that the underlying question is: “which is more reactionary, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism or liberal civil society, and how do –how should–each of these phenomena figure in an anti-imperialist politics?”  

The question seems to constitute an intractable conundrum, but perhaps that because of the way it is looked at.     

Dialectical-Historical Method

To my mind the Gordian Knot can be cut by a what Georg Lukacs calls the ‘dialectical-historical’ method. 

The dialectical part would consist of an acknowledgement that none of these phenomena are monolithic and unearthing the essential contradiction within each phenomenon. 

The historical part would be to figure out which aspect of the contradictory character of the phenomenon under discussion comes—or had come– to the forefront and which had receded into a secondary place, at which period of history and, upon closer focus, at which moment and in which situation.     

In short there is no simple answer. The issue is intrinsically complex and problematic. The phenomena are also dynamic, not static, and must be viewed as such. The question must be viewed concretely. ‘Sinhala Buddhist nationalism’ when and in relation to what? Likewise, ‘liberal civil society’. This is true of that holy of holies, ‘anti-imperialism’ as well. 

Slavoj Zizek was fond of repeating a humorous yet deadly serious reply by Stalin to the journalist who asked him, which is worse, the right deviation or the left deviation. Stalin replied “they are both worse”. There are times, the same answer may be true with regard to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and liberal civil society. They are both worse. 

For his part, Samir Amin was also fond of quoting a line from Stalin, from Foundations of Leninism, where he pointed out that the intrinsically reactionary ideology of a movement or personality may be less important than the role he/she/it plays in the anti-imperialist struggle. “That is why the Emir of Afghanistan is more progressive than the British Labour party” quipped Stalin, but in all seriousness.  

It really depends on the larger context; on what else is happening. The framework of the debate should be widened, instead of assuming an essential, unchanging, monolithic character of any phenomenon—and issuing from that, the possibility of formulating an answer that is correct in any absolute sense.

1956 & Sinhala Nationalism

Let me conclude with two personal reference points. Firstly, my father Mervyn de Silva’s own grappling with the phenomena of SWRD Bandaranaike, Sinhala nationalism, 1956 and all that. SWRD had thrust him into the study of international affairs in his late 20s. Mervyn turned 30 the year SWRD was assassinated. 

“Perhaps in the absence of a truly national and unifying pre-independence movement, Ceylonese nationalism, denied a natural birth, acquired mongrel features with the departure of the foreign ruler. Inasmuch as it was against foreign domination and foreign symbols, this nationalism historically speaking, was normal. But when it focused on the Tamil minority, a community identified as the favoured child of colonial policies, it was racist.” 

(‘April Anniversaries’, Teilhard de Chardin lecture, Lanka Guardian April 1981) 

Mervyn was not a Marxist dialectician but a literary critic with an advanced sensibility even as a youth, according to Godfrey Gunatilleke. The lesson is that what is most important is not to rush to judgment but to wrestle with and comprehend.

Neo-Fascism & Nationalism

Secondly, here is an extended quote from something I wrote on Sinhala nationalism. 

“…In 1985 the World Festival of Youth and Students was addressed by two old time revolutionary heroes. One was Miguel Marmol, a leader of the 1933 communist uprising in El Salvador led by the iconic Farabundo Marti. The other was Kurt Julius Goldstein, German Jewish Communist, veteran of the Spanish Civil War, survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald as well as the notorious ‘Death March’, and the head of the World Federation of Anti-Fascist Resistance Fighters. My extended conversation with Goldstein was two years after July ’83 and I asked him what the main lessons were that he drew from his experiences and those of his heroic comrades. I asked him the main mistakes the antifascists of the 1930s made, the mistakes that he would not repeat if he were put on a time machine. I recorded his answer in the Lanka Guardian of that time. 

He said that the biggest error the Left made was to confuse nationalism, chauvinism and fascism: “we should have united with nationalism, even chauvinism, to fight fascism; instead of which we treated them as all the same”. He said– and I published it at the time– that they, the Left of that day, confused nationalism, populism and chauvinism with fascism, and that they should have differentiated between these and fascism, adopting a strategy of uniting or working with all those diverse (even unsavory) elements of an anti-status quo orientation who could be united, neutralizing those who could not, and identifying, isolating and targeting the fascists. 

He said the Left was insensitive to the grievances of those misguided social forces and did not know how to approach them– which opened the space for fascist appeals to resonate and monopolize. I believe the same mistakes should not be repeated today. One must not fail to grapple with, and adopt a new approach, to the phenomena of nationalism and patriotism, including Sinhala nationalism and patriotism. 

…Sinhala-Buddhism as such is too old, rooted, broad and organic to be frontally confronted and ruptured with. Instead, it must be externally contained and countervailed; its plasticity recognized; it must be internally reworked, re-calibrated, re-set and re-assembled so as to fairly and justly accommodate multi-ethnicity, multi-religiosity, multilingualism and multiculturalism, i.e., pluralism. The gap between the interests of the Sinhalese, including the Sinhala Buddhists, and the extreme, sectarian versions of Sinhala Buddhism, must be exposed, highlighted and utilized to combat the latter…

…Sinhala fascism cannot be defeated by frontally opposing Sinhala Buddhism or Sinhala nationalism as such. Nor can it be defeated outside of a national-democratic strategy to build a united Sri Lankan nation and state, resisting external interventionism and Tamil secessionism. This means a patriotic, popular-democratic platform, but may well require the adoption of a populist and patriotic one which includes a nationalist plank…” (How To & How Not To Fight Future Fascism  – Colombo Telegraph) 

Operative Implications & Conclusions

I’m not saying I’d draw the same conclusion today or phrase it in exactly the same way, but as the Ranil regime hardens into an election-killing ‘dependent authoritarianism’ or even ‘dependent neo-fascism’, I do want to share what Kurt Julius Goldstein told me and what I made of it. I hope it helps the current discussion among young Left intellectuals. 

None of this should this be read as any kind of defence of the Uttara Lanka bloc in which the social chauvinists, xenophobes and conspiracy theorists are the head not the tail (the latter is composed of genuinely left parties). 

The Uttara Lanka leadership’s indictment of the Aragalaya as an imperialist plot is wildly lunatic as it would have been had Lenin denounced the abortive 1905 revolution as reactionary because the triggering event was a massacre of a procession led by Father Gapon (in fact Lenin wrote warmly about him and militantly intervened in support of the ensuing 1905 armed uprising), or worse still, the Russian Revolution of 1917 is classified a ‘Colour Revolution’ because Lenin arrived at the Finland station on a sealed train provided by the German imperialists who were at war with Russia! 

Reason, universality and modernity must be the philosophical base (but exceptionally, not perhaps the exclusive component) of any values and ideology that lead and guide a progressive bloc.  

I would only suggest that debates among left intellectuals be informed by the spirit of intervention in the concrete conjuncture and aimed at impacting the practice of the actually existing Left(s)— NPP-JVP, FSP-IUSF and CPSL and DLF. What’s missing in the current debates is the operative bottom-line, however provisional.     

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Latest comments

  • 18

    At last, DJ is back with what he thinks as intellectual article, on Pseudo Left Intellectuals.

    • 4

      You speak of “Pseudo Left Intellectuals.”
      Please don’t place persons of the proven commitment of Kumar David, Rajan Phillips, in that category!

      • 20

        SM, Up to now what we witnessed in Lanka is nothing but Pseudo socialism / communism. The real ones have no place in party or role to play. (they may be, a threat to Pseudos ) . Do you think comrade DJ is committed ????

        • 11

          chiv ,

          Spot on ! You made it just in thee lines . Brilliant . No time waste .

        • 3

          Until recently, DJ the joker was sitting on the lap of MaRa. Remember ?
          Nugegoda STAGE drama in 2015 and that was then headed by this chamelian charactor. He was once found pant down in early 90ties. Remember
          Unfortunately, the kind of WIMAL WEERAWANSE – SIAMESE TWIN emerges today to give us analyses. How shameless these human beasts are ?
          And the thing is Bandarawella man has no whatsoever idea about the danger of these men. He only knows to hero-worship his men.

    • 12

      Pseudo left or pseudo intellectual or both?

    • 3

      Dayan, “The Current Debate Among Left Intellectuals??

      Very apt heading! It is wonderful news! So there are still left intellectuals!

      I thought they were all dead and gone, not only in Sri Lanka, but in the whole world.

      What Do they discuss?- about the forthcoming communist revolution that was round the corner for a long time since time immemorial!

      – Fortunately, the name Dayan was not in the published list!

  • 8

    “…a community identified as the favoured child of colonial policies”
    That is a myth and only a fragment of chauvinist imagination.
    Colonial rule created several lander gentry among the Sinhalese owning 1000s of acres. It enabled the evolution of a powerful capitalist class.
    The only area in which Tamils (only the upper caste Jaffna Tamil elite) fared strongly was government service, and that too by education in English, made possible mostly by American missionaries.
    You can count land owners possessing a few hundred acres in the north on the hands of your finger. How many leading capitalists emerged under colonial rule?
    The SB chauvinist elite envied the wealth of the Muslim trader and competition from both South Indian and Muslim merchants. When the Muslim expanded the scope of his business and moved into the learned profession, he was the envy of the Tamil elite as well.
    Mervyn de S had not researched the subjected but repeated what was common belief among the elite.

    • 10

      “you don’t need the fingers of even one hand to count these left intellectuals who write for publication in English is a sad state of affairs”
      Is English the sole official language to discuss Marxist theory?
      Has DJ not come across the quarterly left journal “Marxist Leninist New Democracy” in publication since year 2000 or so?
      Then there was the SSA publication Pravada that ceased publishing some years ago.
      Although A Kadirgamar is not a declared Marxist, he writes far more progressive and secular material than the three hand-picked by DJ.
      He is accessible to the Tamil community as well.

  • 9

    As the author says nationalism, chauvinism and fascism should not be confused with each other.
    But transition from nationalism to chauvinism to fascism is a strong possibility, and the process is ABSOLUTELY IRREVERSIBLE.

    • 6

      Some people have, within their lifetimes, covered Marxism, separatism, chauvinism, and journalism.

      • 2

        That describes Dayan fully and comprehensively- another insightful comment!

    • 2

      Thanks SJ for a series of enlightened comments!

  • 6

    Would benefit readers if commenters focussed on an article’s substance. Or is that difficult. Patting each other on the back and slandering authors or their antecedents doesn’t make sense. That’s being foolish and a waste of space.

  • 2

    Dayan , I am guilty of commenting on this forum without reading the full article. I did read the first half with forcing it on my mind. It is same old story written by pseudo intellectual about their discussion after drinks and dinner . Small criticism about the ruler weather it is Ranil, Gota or Mahinda and some advise to them as they were not being able to get into their inner circle.
    Sri Lanka people ( Not pseudo intellectuals) only have one choice that is to form JVP-NPP led government for the sake of the country not because that they are the best but they are far better and have more advanced policies and principles than the governing thieves and other opposition parties waiting to get rich over the expense of poverty of the people.
    Ii is sad to see non of he people write articles on Colombo Telegraph has courage to do that.

  • 8

    There’s Left, there’s Right, there’s Centre ….. And there’s self-interest.

    • 6

      nimal fernando

      “There’s Left, there’s Right, there’s Centre ….. And there’s self-interest.”

      Then there is right and wrong.

      • 1

        Native ,

        ” Then there is right and wrong . ”

        Yes , once upon a time , the time of Victorian morals !
        Today in the Paradise , it is :
        Tsunami Fund + C B Bonds = Wrong + Wrong
        All have lifted their Sarongs From the Bottom To Cover Their
        Faces ! Over to you Sir !

      • 1

        Native Vedda,
        You are venturing into uncertain territory.
        – “Then there is right and wrong’.
        Right is wrong and wrong is right, depending on the ‘frames’ you use.
        (Anything deeper than this would turn out to be exhaustive.)

    • 5

      Nimal / Native, you’ll are absolutely right. DJ is a fake, fraud, hypocrite. There are many such so called Pseudo intellectuals in Lanka. Haven’t we heard and seen enough, among major political parties.( SLPP, stands out, intellectuals yearning for Hitler ). To me, their substance now or in future, doesn’t matter anymore. This is exactly people like him do for living (political prostit–ing) . In future, if Gotha / Mahinda pretends to be Dalai Lama / true Buddhist and start writing on Buddhist spirituality, does it ( substance ) really matter ??? As someone mentioned here Lanka is full of fakes and frauds. Looking for substance is much more foolish and waste of space.

      • 3

        “intellectuals yearning for Hitler”
        That they are a miserable lot I agree, but have they been so daft?

  • 2

    Hello Dr Jayatilleka,
    Do you remember your article way back in 2014 https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/no-limits-southern-fascism-the-politics-of-anti-fascism/
    I cant believe that in these days anyone can quote Joseph Stalin in relation to Fascism. Just look at what his pupil Putin is doing in Ukraine.
    Trotsky on the other hand first explained Fascism – “At the moment that the “normal” police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium – the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat – all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.” And again “The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.”
    I would love to hear from the Left Intellectuals what their analysis is and what steps should be taken to get rid of this Stalinist government in the Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
    Best Regards to be continued

  • 2

    Dr Jayatilleka, continued
    You quote in your current article from Kurt Julius Goldstein. Remember he was part of the German Communist Party that failed to learn the lessons of Italian Fascism and allowed Hitler to prevail. From Trotsky again “The brunt of the blame must be borne, of course, by the leadership of the Comintern. Italian Communists above all others were duty-bound to raise their voices in alarm. But Stalin, together with Manuilsky, compelled them to disavow the most important lessons of their own annihilation” So please don’t portray the Mass Murderer and instigator of the Ukraine Holodomor, Joseph Stalin as some sort of Marxist Guru.
    By the way Historical Materialism and Dialectal Materialism are not sciences in the same sense as Physics, Chemistry and Biology. They are more akin to the Social sciences and Psychology. Karl Popper was more or less correct that if a theory cannot be falsified it is not scientific. For a really good explanation and critique of Popper read Alan Chalmers “What is this thing called Science
    Best Regards

  • 6

    The current debate among Intellectuals is PARADOXICAL.

    If the so-called “Intellectuals” including this writer, keep out of the current debate is better for the country.

    Let the PEOPLE use their COMMON SENSE.

  • 6

    The modern Srilanka is full of Fakes . Even emotions are being imitated to
    display acquaintance of a situation , like hugging to show intimacy , crying
    in joy to show overwhelmed . Arrival of Tv and living experience in foreign
    countries have taught them these new stuffs that did not exist in pre 1980
    Srilanka . Only people like me , over 60s can notice these dramas with disgust .
    It is disgusting to see when emotions are copied . I watch a teledrama called
    ” Kolam Kuttama ” which has a main character as ‘ Senal ‘ who was wearing a
    T shirt in the last two or three episodes with the name ‘ adidaas ‘ printed on the
    chest . Read carefully the name . The designer name has been faked and the
    actor , the producer , director and the Tv , all ignored the fact that it was a world
    popular brand that was faked and even displayed close up on the show , to the
    public . This is just one incident . The people of the country is fake , head down .
    You do not build a future by being fake !

  • 4

    Worthless rubbish.
    Why wouldn’t he dump this in some pompous, left, so-called Colombo media?
    Three years ago, for months Thero was singing the fame of Old King, Hitler King, Mr. 40% and Playboy Minister, as they are the Saviors of Wildlife Sanctuary, SinhaLE Langkang. Prof. Kumar, Ahilan, Rajan…. are the new guardian angels of Leftism? Come on man. After the last Tamil left out leftist Prof Kumar, nobody will ever think about writing the story of the dead horse socialism in CT. Thank God! These guys are such unrealistic thinkers, hoping to sell communism to Sinhala Buddhist Modayas, who feed exclusively on racist Biryani, and drink criminal Arrack. How many light years distance between the lazy philosophies of Socialism and Buddhism and the Sinhala Buddhist Modayas? The Humerus entertainment is that these bumps want to write in English to teach those Modayas!
    The family of criminals killed Langkang and now have killed them too. Sinhala Buddhists kicked on the Butt of Old Rowdy King and then they returned and did it to Hitler King. How can a writer claim he is foresighted, while before the end of three years of his series, the people had kicked out the pigs from the pen. What do these Socialistic Comedy Kings understand about the perception of Sinhala Buddhists? Who is asking for these obituary notices of those left.

  • 14

    An unwholesome character, writing mainly to promote himself ! When not me it is my father, who is the best journalist ever ,according to son !

    How can this man who was at different times was with Premadasa, MR( his diplomat !) and now with Sajith claim left links ?

    Just writing some critical essay does not make you left. True leftists must be repulsed by Dayan’ de Silva effort to self declare himself one of them.

    I am not familiar with other names but occasionally have read this Uditha, Dayan’s mutual admirer.( I praise you, you praise me !) A man who also writes for effect.

    To be good in any field, you must have intelligence, without that any effort becomes tedious to read

  • 6

    There never were left intellectuals in Ceylon now Sri Lanka. People we thought were left intellectuals in my time-NM, Colvin, Kueneman-gave everything up for being ministers in Sirimavo’s government. The later JVP which wanted to kill the old and the Tamils could hardly be said to be socialist. The people who DJ mentions do write but have never had much influence on politics. DJ himself has twisted and turned so many times that he will never be considered a credible figure. He will be on the side of any person who gives him some office. The left is non-existent in Sri Lanka to any significant extent. The so called socialist groups have no gumption to stand for basic ideas such as equality of people. How can they say they are socialist? The Aragalaya was not a socialist movement. It was a movement of disgruntled people who came together against maladministration. The pressure eased on the middle class when basic amenities like petrol and gas became available and the Aragalaya faded. Now,, we await the return of Ranil,. the Batalanda Kid grown into the evil uncle, JR.

    • 2

      … ‘to stand for basic ideas such as equality of people’.
      Equality? People are not born equal.
      … ‘The Aragalaya was a movement of disgruntled people’.
      It was not a ‘movement’. Disgruntled. No. Unhappy. Yes.
      Motivation subsides. Never dies. The fire can flare up again under the right conditions.

  • 8

    It is amazing how an opportunist can write verbose articles that fly well over the heads of most readers in terms of the depth of argument, references and content. I do not think he is sincere in his writing. He sounds more like a narcissist with a bent on grandiose delusions grand-standing with the petit bourgeoise as his fodder. Reading the lengthy article, I get the impression that his main purpose is to show off an intellectual capacity that he probably does not possess despite his ascension to positions of power broker in different capitalist enterprises. I do not think readers should tolerate this kind of nonsense.

    • 3

      Dear LP,
      Are you new to his articles? His character hasn’t changed at all, that is, inconsistent since the day we got to know him through CT articles and TV interviews.

      You are quite right, about showing that he has inter-intellectual ability, because he cites some references from world literature.
      Looking back his articles should be subjected to proof reading by simple writers becasue CT or others expect any writers to come with simple examples about what they are going to say.
      CT articles he wrote show that his nannies used to put him to bed in those days reading him Shakespeare novels. He repeats his so-called background to show how powerful his family is. Saddest reality is he was abused by Mahinda Rajapakshe to the same manner, temple living adult monks consistently abuse their child monks in srilanka.
      And for me he is the english version of Mlechcha WIMAL BURUWANSE.
      However, his nature turns out to be quite flattering, íf he is about to get a diplomatic position somewhere. Or if his wife forces him to go to another country for another term. And not to forget that This man is a joker and lapdog of Rajapkashes until recently.
      Just before he was appointed Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia in the RW-Maitree government you may check the archives so that you can see the facts by your own eyes.

      Then I can avoid writing too much about this chameleon character.

    • 3

      “I do not think he is sincere in his writing. “
      Not just in his writing.
      I think that is what should worry us, especially since is a clever and competent person.

  • 1

    Is it necessary to write anymore dissertations on the current appalling situation? It is obvious, and does not need anymore explanations and philosophical insights. JNP/JJB has already drawn up the framework, and left it democratically open to evolve with the circumstance. Now is the time for Action! 💪💥
    Debating is only for those who know the truth, but want a way to rationalize out of it because facing the truth is a difficult thing. Have courage!

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