By Uditha Devapriya –
In my very brief essay on the history of the SLFP, I pointed out that several events preceded and laid the groundwork for the 1956 election. I noted that many of these events involved the UNP, even under John Kotelawala’s stewardship. I also observed that, unlikely as it may seem now, it was Dudley Senanayake, not Bandaranaike, who the Buddhist clergy wanted to lead the revival, and it was to him that they went. Yet, in the final analysis, it was the SLFP and not the UNP that headed the movement, with Bandaranaike at its helm.
Sinhala nationalists and propagandists link the SLFP’s win to the anti-colonial struggle, and depict the party as the successor to the martyrs of the Uva Wellassa Rebellion, Weera Puran Appu, and Anagarika Dharmapala. The nationalists’ explanation of what went wrong after 1956 is that Bandaranaike imbibed too many liberal ideas to take the struggle to its logical conclusion. In the same vein, his widow cohabited with Marxists, who apparently destroyed local entrepreneurship and proceeded to enforce measures that, in the words of Gunadasa Amarasekara, “made life impossible for the middle class, and the poor.”
The conventional reading of the SLFP, accordingly, is that it used to be a nationalist party, but has since become a captive of foreign interests. What this assumes that the rank and file of the party were progressive in their views and it was with the advent of the Marxists, and later the NGO-cracy, that they went downhill. Quoting Gunadasa Amarasekara, while “[t]he UNP was founded on the liberal ideology of the West, the Socialist parties were founded on Marxism, which once again was a product of the West.” The implication there, of course, is that the SLFP could become a “party of the soil” only by steering clear of both.
Amarasekara traces the SLFP’s origins to the Buddhist revival, and in doing so he links it to the two institutions set up at the turn of the 19th century by the stalwarts of the revival, Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara. Profoundly influenced by the work done at these institutions, Anagarika Dharmapala sought to take their message “to the masses.” It was that message which became a catalyst for the formation of the Party.
Amarasekara considers Dharmapala as embodying a progressive ideology, one which S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike became heir to when he set up the Sinhala Maha Sabha and the SLFP. A wide array of social forces rallied around these outfits, resulting in a conjunction of sangha, vedha, guru, govi, and kamkaru. Amarasekara notes that, to Bandaranaike’s credit, he was the only member of the colonial elite who took stock of these developments.
Fairly accurate as this account of the SLFP is, it omits certain important points. First and foremost, anti-nationalist as the Marxists may be in Amarasekara’s book, they nevertheless found common cause with the clergy. This is not an omission made by nationalists only: I have with me a collection of 19 essays on Buddhism in Sri Lanka published by an avowedly secular civil society institution, and none of them as much as mentions Buddhist monks who joined the Old Marxist Left, including Udakendawala Sri Saranankara.
Such an omission is not hard to explain, striking though it is. In most liberal and non-Marxist accounts, Buddhist monks overreached themselves and went beyond their call of duty by involving themselves in politics, whatever their ideology may have been. Indeed, very few scholars, including Regi Siriwardena and Kumari Jayawardena, noted that their forays into the Left helped them to break away from their conservative roots. Such a rupture held the promise of a radical role for the Buddhist clergy, a prospect denied by the more parochial among them as well as by the elite’s opposition to their involvement in politics.
Unfortunate as it is, then, liberal opprobrium against nationalism and nationalist hostility to Marxism have compelled both sides to neglect the potential the clergy possessed at the turn of the century, when they joined hands with the only anti-imperialist political formation in the country. Accordingly, in liberal narratives as in nationalist ones, Sinhala nationalists have been insulated from progressive politics and viewed in isolation. When one accounts for this omission, one realises that a very different account of the country’s political parties is called for. That is where we need to revisit the SLFP’s history.
The SLFP was the logical heir and successor to the Sinhala Maha Sabha, which S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike chose to make a part of the UNP. Gunadasa Amarasekara is correct when he criticises the view of the Sabha as a chauvinistic outfit as unjust and unfair. Both the Sabha and the SLFP gave vent to the cultural aspirations of a community that had been tied to 400 years of colonial rule. Insofar as it spoke to this group, the SLFP possessed an emancipatory potential, which could well have made it a fellow traveller of the Old Left.
However, subsequent events proved that this was not to be. Yes, the SLFP did possess a progressive potential, but then this was not the same as being a progressive party. At its inception it was composed of a myriad interests, some progressive in their outlook, others not so, and still others conservative and no different to the comprador elites in the UNP that they considered to be their foes. Not surprisingly, the party’s victory in 1956 did not usher in a triumph for all these class elements; only a certain bloc therein.
Various writers describe this bloc as a national or nationalist middle bourgeoisie, forgetting that, as Andre Gunder Frank would say of the Latin American middle-class, they were more bourgeois than national. Composed of nationalist intellectuals, small time traders, monks, and landowners, their conservative inclinations came to the fore in their opposition to the more radical policies of the MEP government, especially Philip Gunawardena’s land-to-the-tiller programme: a point James Manor notes in his account of Bandaranaike.
The lack of any difference between the Westernised elite’s and the Sinhala middle-class’s attitude to radical reform led stalwarts of the Old Left, particularly Hector Abhayavardhana, to class the SLFP as the alternative party of the bourgeoisie and later the party of the petty bourgeoisie. Judging by the political choices and interventions of this milieu over the last 50 years, one can hardly call their ideology progressive. That is why the Marxists’ view of them as being no different to the comprador elite holds much ground.
In any case, the political trajectory of the Sinhala middle-class does not bear out revisionist accounts of them. None less than some of the ideologues of the 1956 revolution turned the other way after the election win, shifting to the UNP. More than a decade later, in 1977, an overwhelming majority of the Sinhala middle-class voted for the United National Party, on the grounds that the SLFP’s policies were strangling their economic prospects.
16 years of UNP rule de-industrialised the country and facilitated the sell-out of crucial sectors to private interests. Yet despite contributing to such a state of affairs, what these bred among nationalist ranks was not so much a political critique as a cultural critique of the UNP regime, a critique which evolved into a political movement when, as per Amarasekara, the SLFP abandoned its cultural moorings and embraced an amorphous “multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multireligious, multi-cultural” identity under Chandrika Kumaratunga.
However intriguing as it might be, this cultural critique misses certain points: in particular, the SLFP’s shift from a left-of-centre to a neoliberal agenda in the Kumaratunga years. For nationalists, the SLFP’s turnaround remains reducible to the de-culturalisation of its leader. In my opinion, such a view neglects certain important considerations.
To Amarasekara’s credit he does not ignore these other points: he admits that “the greatest harm inflicted on the SLFP” was its volte-face from “anti-imperialist, pro nationalist and pro socialist” policies. But this was a turnaround that was not necessarily opposed by nationalist elements, as I have contended in my two-part essay on Jathika Chintanaya: by now the most fervent Sinhala ideologues had accepted the rationale for such a shift, i.e. that globalisation could not be held back and socialist politics were no longer tenable.
Many of these ideologues consider the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government as a disaster because it destroyed Sinhalese capitalists. But the question can validly be asked as to what Sinhalese capitalists, especially under this administration, have done to further the aims of anti-imperialist nationalism. The truth is that most of them remain as beholden to foreign capital as their “Westernised” counterparts. Unlike certain commentators, hence, I see no real difference between the SLFP leaning “national-minded” petty bourgeoisie and the UNP leaning “liberal-minded” bourgeoisie. As far as their political ideology is concerned, each is as compradorist, and as opposed to radical reform, as the other.
Where does the SLFP figure in all this? Strange as it seems, I find Gunadasa Amarasekara’s metaphor to be an apt summing up of its dilemma: it has become a kavandaya, a headless corpse, trying to find its way out and abysmally failing to do so. That is perhaps its biggest legacy from the Kumaratunga regime, which single-handedly axed the Left and turned the party into a Third Way outfit, a front for comprador corporate interests.
I agree with Amarasekara’s point that the blame for that lies, not so much with those who denied the children of 1956 an opportunity to realise their aspirations, as those children themselves. In turning away from the more radical ideals of 1956, they paved the way for the denial of their own aspirations. And yet, stunted though they are, they remain a force to reckon with, even today. It is this, more than anything else, that keeps the SLFP relevant – as much to the country’s political consciousness as to its cultural inheritance.
*The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org