21 April, 2024


Revaluating National Self-Determination And The Progressive Project

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The theory of the right of nations to self-determination was enunciated almost but not quite simultaneously by Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, with Lenin taking the lead. Though the theory purported to be for the purpose of liberating nations from oppression, the real aim was strategic or more correctly, grand strategic. The USA wished to weaken its rivals, the autocratic and colonial empires while Lenin wished to break up Tsarist autocracy as well as the imperialist system as a whole.

Even while propounding the theory of self determination, Lenin constantly added a rider. The right of Self determination was not absolute. Like any other ‘democratic slogan’, he said, it was subject to the needs of the ‘general democratic struggle’ and the proletarian class struggle. Simply put, there were higher and larger strategic considerations to which the right of nations to self determination was subject. This is the methodological principle that many Marxists and Leftists seem to have forgotten.

The proof resides in the actual practice of Lenin’s state in the aftermath of the October revolution. In the case of Finland, the exercise of the right of self-determination in the form of secession was permitted because it was not possible to do otherwise. However, in the case of other oppressed nationalities or ethnic peoples on the strategically vital periphery of the new state, the Red Army intervened and fought bloody wars sometimes for decades, against any form of political manifestation seen as centrifugal. Even those revolutionaries such as Sultan Galiev who fused communism with nationalism in these peripheral areas were fought to the death by the Bolsheviks and the Red Army.

Thus the methodology was that if the larger state or large and higher cause ran counter to the right of nations to self determination, the latter right would be suppressed except on paper. For the Sri Lankan Left or for those on the Left world-wide, who take a position on Sri Lanka, the first criteria should be whether or not the recognition of the right of self determination serves the  larger and higher project of resistance and emancipation.

This leaves the matter of the nominal or formal right of self determination, i.e. the legal-constitutional recognition of that right. What harm can come of it, provided one prevents or suppresses in practice, its exercise in the form of separation, some may ask. Surely its formal recognition may prevent its actual practice, they would argue. The answer resides in actual history; the contemporary history which has drastically shaped our time: when the USSR, followed by Yugoslavia, cracked up, it was precisely along the lines of the formally recognised right of nations to self determination. The disintegration of the USSR has been described by President Putin as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”.

This disintegration permitted the expansion of Empire, the rise of uni-polar hegemony and greatly facilitated the spread of neo-liberalism. Therefore, there should be no recognition of the right of (self-declared) nations to self determination within the territory of existing states. The right must be restricted to those cases of external aggression, annexation and external occupation such as Palestine.

In the current historical period the role of the state has to be reassessed. If in the period of socialist revolution, all strategy had to be anti-state, in the post-socialist period the state re-emerges as a rampart of resistance against the spread of Empire.

The defence of the state should not be a problem for Marxists who always recognised the historically progressive and necessary function of the state, unlike the Anarchists who wished and worked for its disintegration. Marxists sought the replacement of the capitalist state with the socialist one, and in the current historical period in which the latter task is not on the immediate agenda, the defence – and reform– of the existing state against imperialist interventionism including that on allegedly humanitarian grounds, is the appropriate and logical stand.

This is not new to the Marxist movement. Indeed it was as far back as 1925 that Stalin, in his Foundations of Leninism, argued that insofar as the British labour party supported imperialist military adventures and the Emir of Afghanistan—hardly the acme of proletarian socialism– opposed it, then “the Emir of Afghanistan is more progressive than the British Labour Party”. One of the outstanding Marxist-Leninist minds of today, Samir Amin, often quotes that line approvingly. Decades later addressing the last congress in his lifetime, Stalin urged Marxists to seize “the banner of national independence” from the bourgeoisie. This was the secret of the titanic victory of the Vietnamese over successive imperialisms: “raising high the twin banners of national independence and socialism” as Le Duan put it, adding that “socialism and the nation are one”.

With the failure of the Gorbachevian experiment, the fall of the USSR, and the NATO war against Yugoslavia, the worldwide Left polarised into two broad camps just as it did during World War 1.

One camp supported the erosion of national sovereignty in the name of human rights, the right of nations to self determination and human rights. It provided an ideological fig-leaf for the doctrine of humanitarian interventionism. Western radicals like Prof Jean Bricmont denounced this as ‘humanitarian imperialism’ or ‘human rights imperialism’. The majority of the Western Left and their NGO fellow travellers in some Third World states belonged to this camp.

The first camp, consisting of those who support humanitarian interventionism, have been frontally criticised by respected First World radicals such as Prof James Petras for contributing to the Empire’s project of dismantling the state by converting to NGO civil society doctrines and supporting the slogan of national self-determination which provides a platform for division and a beachhead for intervention. Earlier, Samir Amin had defended from this point of view, the refusal of the ANC to adopt a federal constitution for post-apartheid South Africa.

The second, much larger progressive camp regarded as one of the main contradictions in today’s world, that between sovereignty and intervention and rallied to the banner of the defence of national unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty, opposing the break-up of nations.  It reviewed the right of self-determination within legitimate, existing states as making for fissures and fault lines which imperialism would use, as it had done historically, to divide and rule. This camp consisted of the Left in the Global south, including all those states which had emerged as the result of revolutions or were led by former revolutionaries. Fidel and Cuba have been the longest-standing and best known proponents of this perspective. Lula’s Worker’s Party and Brazil as a state are prominent, respected defenders of national sovereignty. The alliance of left-led Latin American states known as ‘the Bolivarian Alternative’, ALBA (Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia are among them) are the vanguard tendency and most dynamic component of this camp. The positions of this camp also coincide with those of the Non Aligned Movement, the Group of 77 and China and the BRICS. This is the broad united front that was built in support of Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2007-9.

None of this is alien to the Left. It was the very perspective and foundation on which Marx, Engels and even Lenin were allergic to the idea of a federal state; a slogan so dear to Bakunin and his anarchists. It is not due to ignorance that Marx and Engels stood uncompromisingly for a strong centralising state. That perspective has to be rediscovered and readopted by progressives the world over, including in Sri Lanka.

A failure to do so and a continued invocation of the need to recognise the right to national self-determination of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka can only deflect Lankan progressives from the task of contesting the monopoly that Sinhala chauvinist forces have on the slogans of national unity and the defence of the country’s territorial integrity. It would also alienate the Left, radical and progressive forces from the vast majority of the country’s citizenry, which surely encompasses the Sinhala people including its peasant masses.

The progressive project must not render itself inorganic by refusing to defend national sovereignty and unity, championing instead the right of the Tamil nation to self determination.

It may be noted parenthetically that is hardly an accident that this was already the perspective the most outstanding Marxist theoretical mind that Sri Lanka produced, GVS de Silva.

No rational or realistic progressive in Sri Lanka today can ignore the discourse of the TESO project in neighbouring Tamil Nadu on August 12th anymore than a Cuban could ignore a blatantly hostile gathering in Florida. Progressive discourse must discard the bathwater of narrow nationalism but not throw out the ‘baby’ of the nation, the national factor and national sentiments. It must discard the particularistic but recognise the particular. It must be patriotic and planetary. The Sri Lankan left must re-read Antonio Gramsci and understand why he titled his most important essay ‘The Modern Prince’, in a conscious echo of Machiavelli; why he commended Machiavelli’s politico-intellectual intervention in the cause of a unified national state and above all why he constantly reiterated the importance of the “national–popular” and the “people-nation”.

Internal self-determination

The affable TNA parliamentarian Mr MA Sumanthiran’s authored an essay definitively entitled ‘Self Determination: Myth and Reality’ in the Sunday Edition of Ceylon Today (July 29, 2012, p 9). Somewhere in the first half of his essay Mr Sumanthiran defines ‘internal self-determination’: “It is important to note that a people can, in the exercise of their right to self-determination decide to remain within a pre-existing state but choose the degree of autonomous self government within the framework of a sovereign state. This is known as internal self- determination.”

So, internal self-determination, in this definition, is not really internal in the sense that it has firm parametric constraints – guardrails, banisters or firewalls–that keep it confined and committed to the internal. In Tamil nationalism’s definition the ‘internal’ character of self determination is purely volitional and utterly elastic: “a people can, in the exercise of their right to self-determination decide to remain within a pre-existing state”. Note: ‘can’, not ‘shall’. They can, but are not obliged to and may not. Or they can today, but may choose not to, tomorrow. What’s ‘internal’ about that?

Furthermore, the definition of internal is the decision of the relevant collective and has no larger or less subjective constitutional or legal constraint, because “the people can…choose the degree of autonomous self-government within the framework of a sovereign state”. Which ‘people’ is he talking about? Going by his definition, the ‘people’ that does the choosing is by no means the entire citizenry of a state, a country. It is that ‘people’ which perceives itself as a people or a nation bearing the right of self determination. It is entirely self-referential. Thus, quite irrespective of the basic law or the adjudication of the highest courts or the democratically ascertained wishes of the country’s citizenry as a whole, any segment of a country’s citizenry which perceives and declares itself as a ‘people’ have the right to “choose the degree of autonomous self government within the framework of a sovereign state”. Most dangerously, the need for legitimacy based upon the consent of the majority of the citizenry is peremptorily obviated. This, according to the moderate Mr Sumanthiran, “is known as internal self-determination”.

Much more important is the bottom-line of the moderate TNA’s most moderate ideologue. Here is the concluding paragraph of Mr Sumanthiran’s article:


“…the Tamil people in Sri Lanka have been subjected to discrimination within the model of a unitary state where they have been denied the right to express their right to self-determination within an internal arrangement, such as a federal government. In such a situation the continued denial of the existence of the right to self-determination itself may give rise to the right to unilateral cessation as an expression of that right. Therefore, it is the recognition of the right to self-determination of the Tamil people and not its denial that will help preserve the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka from claims to the right of cessation. Thus it is a sine qua non that the right to self-determination is recognized and the nature of the state is restructured to enable meaningful exercise of internal self-determination if the right to external self-determination is to be avoided.”

The argument is that the right of internal self determination is denied within– and by virtue of being within– a unitary state, i.e. a strong central state. It is sufficiently ensured only within and by some form of federal state, and if the right of self determination is not recognised by such a federal arrangement in place of a unitary one, it is justifiable and likely that the right of external self determination–the right to unilateral secession–will be activated.

In other words, either Sri Lanka stops refusing to recognise the right of the Tamil people to self-determination, proceeds to recognise that right and restructure the state accordingly or the assertion by the Tamil people of external self determination as the right to unilateral secession may be triggered.  More: it is no less than “a sine qua non”, i.e. an essential, indispensable precondition for the non-assertion of the right to external self determination in the form of unilateral secession, that Sri Lanka must accept and recognise the right of the Tamil people to internal self-determination and restructure the state accordingly, moving outside of the unitary model to a some sort of federal model. The bottom-line of the TNA’s evangelist is “abandon the unitary state, convert to federalism and genuflect before the right of Tamil self-determination or ye shall face the wrath of unilateral secession!”

Where Tamil nationalism in the form of the TNA or any other party may go with federalism, is clearly discernible in yet another statement in Mr Sumanthiran’s essay: The claim of the Tamils to self-determination is also based on the fact that prior to colonization they were a nation, exercising sovereignty over a defined and separate territory. Consequently, they claim that the right to independence from colonial rule was a separate right that vested with the Tamil People.”

Mr. Sumanthiran must tell us why the pre-colonial situation is of greater moment than the reality that prevailed at the moment of de-colonization and independence, following centuries of social evolution.

The grievance that this leading moderate ideologue of Tamil nationalism has is not the specific form and accessories –the ideological software –of Sri Lanka’s unitary state. It is not the insufficiency of devolution within a unitary model but the very model and mainframe of the unitary state itself. Tamil nationalism is not fighting merely for reforms (13 A or 13 Plus) which would make for the full implementation of the Constitution or enhanced devolution within the unitary frame. It is committed to change that would require a two-thirds majority at a plebiscite –though the Tamil representatives see no such need for the democratic consent of the country’s citizens, only by those of a sub-unit (a single ethnicity in a single province or a non-contiguous area of two provinces).

Even if Sri Lanka were to adopt the unitary French Constitution with its philosophy of secularism and equal republican citizenship, or the Philippine model of a unitary state with regional autonomy, the Tamil nationalists would regard it as denying internal self determination because it remained unitary not federal, and would find it justifiable to exercise external self-determination i.e. unilateral secession, at a time of their choosing. In the gospel according to Sumanthiran, the unitary state is damned. This is political and ideological fundamentalism.

The ideologues of Tamil nationalism, including the genial Mr. Sumanthiran, must inform us of how many –and which–countries recognize within their own territories (and not as a foreign policy issue) the right of self determination, external or internal, as he demands that Sri Lanka must. He must also tell us which countries among those that do have federal systems, recognize or accept the right of self determination, external or internal.

The conversion to federalism would suffice as evidence of the acceptance of the right to internal self-determination, implies Mr Sumanthiran. However, not all of his fellow Tamil nationalists may be on the same hymn sheet. Were the Sri Lankan state and citizenry to repent their adherence to the false deity of the unitary state and penitently convert to federalism, some of Mr Sumanthiran’s political and ideological brethren may find this inadequate since it does not explicitly bear witness to the right of internal self-determination and may consequently call down upon us the fire and brimstone of external self-determination, i.e. secession.

Mr Sumanthiran most zealously thumps a judgment by the Canadian Supreme Court with regard to Quebec. Recalling as some of us do the imposition of the draconian War Powers Act when a few dozen Quebecois secessionists resorted to terrorism and kidnapping, one cannot help speculate on whether the court’s discourse on internal self determination of Quebec would have been quite so generously liberal had Canada been a little island separated by a strip of water from a very much vaster France, rather than a huge landmass on a different continent safely across the Atlantic ocean. No matter. What the Canadian Supreme Court judgment on Quebec has to do with the courts, laws, Constitution and sovereignty of the citizenry of Sri Lanka is not immediately apparent to me, but the fact that he represents the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, in Sri Lanka, rather than the Quebecois in Canada does not seem immediately apparent to Brother Sumanthiran either.

Related posts;

Controversy About Self-Determination by Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Tamil Self-Determination Or Minority Rights? by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

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Latest comments

  • 0

    I am baffled after reading Dayan Jayatilleka and Laksiri Fernando because these two academics have diametrically opposing conclusions, as I understand. Oh, God!

  • 0

    The one who represent the totalitarian regime like Dayan and the other has a moderate version of devolution of powers, hopefully

    The war was replaced with a dictatorship in our country

    GoSL is represented by people like Dayan and responsible for abductions, corruption and killings.

    We do not seek to deflect attention away from the real issues in SL

    You played your game to fullfill your pockets blaming LTTE for everything and now who is your enemy?

    Need new enemy? TNA?

  • 0

    Dr Jayatillake

    Here’s Marx who you allege was ‘allergic to the idea of a federal state:
    ‘I used to think the separation of Ireland from England impossible. I now think it inevitable, although after the separation there may come FEDERATION (my emphasis)’
    (Letters: Marx to Engels – Nov 2, 1867). So, we must go back to Marx and do on Sri Lanka what Marx did on Ireland. Marx also said, ‘ a nation that oppresses another nation forges its own chains.’ Read this in relation to the Sinhala Buddhist State’s oppression of the Tamil Nation and see how it’s forging its own chains around its ‘sovereignty’.

  • 0

    Dear Dr.Dayan,
    This piece contains diametrically opposing conclusions not only to that of Dr.Laksiri Fernando(Mentioned by Devil’s Advocate) but also to the opinion in http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/172-opinion/20854-the-criminalisation-of-party-politics.html
    Please favour the readers with your academic political analysis of these two posts .

  • 0

    Dr DJ essay is very important of Sri Lankan Natioanl Question of Tamil problems look for new mindset for future Sri Lankan.

  • 0

    J.V Stalin theses of National Question and Social Democray essay was written 1913 Jan-feb. Later renamed as Marxism and Natioanl Question by CPSU.Stalin very respected and repuation as specilist on the Natioanl Question and Right of Self-determiniation of oppresssed nation under the imperilism headed by hegemonist superpower politics in gobally.
    Stalin Theses two main parts
    1 General theory of based on definiation of the nation the history of natioanl movement.
    2 Other discussed the natioanl Programe in which defend the rights of nations to self-determanation.At the same time criticzes the Mensheviks of liquidationist and advocating cultural-nationl autonomy.
    Lenin wrote to Maxim Gorky in 1913 Feb..We have a marvelous Georgian who has sat down to write a long article for ….Lenin praised the artical as an important treatmant of fundamantal of a nationl programe of Social Democary of Bolsheviks.
    He (Stalin) asserst that nation is to being with the definition of NATION.Nation assests a histrocial category belonging to a definite epoch,the epoch of rising CAPITALISM.
    In the case of Sri Lankan national chauvinism of its origin this is be founded (Sinhales And Tamil) had been badly effect nationl and internationol cause of peace and natioanl self-determantion of people of Sri Lanka.
    Dr DJ essay of ongoing debat and consensues is vary important to sort out complexs and complicated problem of Self -deatremantion of Tamils nation problem in Island.

  • 0

    Blind man says:

    When you know so little about SELF what is the point of a lengthy discussion on self-determination?

    However you analyse the superstructure – the base will be the unknown monster that lets you down….

    Is this not what happened to Marx?

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