By Kumar David –
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s (MR) political clout and much acclaimed image have been dented in the last six weeks. The erosion started with the defeat of the party that he (not Sirisena) led in the August 2015 elections but accelerated in 2016. We need to explore this from many angles as the implications are far reaching. MR’s image did not suffer irreparably when he lost in January 2015 as witnessed by the faithful who trekked in their thousands to Carlton Lodge to venerate and commiserate with an inexplicably exiled king of kings; devotees kept the faith alive.
The second defeat took its toll and sullied the image; but from August to December the hubris of the Rajapaksa family and the arrogance of old regime cronies remained intact. President and Prime Minister did not confront the criminals; the government stayed irresolute. Why we can only speculate; perhaps it feared the residual power of the old regime could provoke instability; perhaps Sirisena was alarmed that if the scum was prosecuted the fracas within the SLFP would dent his hold; perhaps both President and PM (like SWRD and Dudley) had loose bowels thinking about a Sinhala-Buddhist backlash. ‘Bring back Mahinda’ rallies arranged by a ructious quartet of blind mice (quintet if you count Dayan) drew crowds. The August election was hard to predict and keenly contested.
In hindsight the capacity of chauvinists to whip up mobs was overestimated and the residual influence of the Rajapaksa rump-mafia exaggerated. The first hint was when PM and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera stuck out their necks and negotiated a compromise at the UNHRC in Geneva. If MR with chauvinists at full blast and yellow robbed masquerades in tow had the ability, this was the opportunity to light the fires. Not a pipsqueak! While they ranted on stage no one dared confrontation on the streets. If one can mobilise fifty thousand there is no need to fear a belt or a baton across the rump. Mobilisations that big can’t be dispersed; the authorities have to compromise. The bigots could incite no more than a few hundred unruly elements; humiliated they stayed at home.
Somewhere along the way it dawned on the PM, Mangala and CBK that MR’s chauvinist rabble was not as strong as feared. The realisation dawned, I think empirically over time. It seems that the PM, and in his trail the President, came to realise that you can say boo to this chauvinist goose. Two steps followed; the national anthem in Tamil on Independence Day and Mangals’s bold assertion that a just solution to the Tamil question should be incorporated in the constitution. Still Mahinda, Gota and BBS, though they cannot burn shops, will try to deny the draft constitution a two-thirds majority in parliament. What to do then is a matter I will not give my mind to now; let us cross that bridge when we reach it.
The point I am urging is that it is time to confront racism and that the balance of forces is favourable. Social, class and demographic determinants at the grassroots of Sinhala society have evolved favourably. The national anthem in Tamil on Independence evoked emotional catharsis from Tamils but it was an event more important for Sinhala society to which a signal was sent that it is no longer business as usual. Prof. Carlo expressed exhilaration in a newspaper column; Vasu declared to his comrades “I proposed this first in Cabinet!” Public comment in all three languages in print and electronic media condemned the rowdiness of BBS, Ravana Balaya and Sinhala Ravaya. Surely all this cannot be piss and wind without substance; surely times have changed.
If the Sinhala-Buddhist majority distances itself from chauvinism and anti Muslim, anti Tamil bigotry, it will be a political revolution ending three generations of blood soaked history. Democracy will forever remain stunted unless and until racism is erased as a force. That change of psyche will be a political revolution. Not in the old way meaning an overthrow of the state and of property relations at the same time, but a different but still meaningful use of the term. A crotchety old American has brought the term ‘political revolution’ into vogue again. The phenomenon is worth exploring.
Revolution is a dirty word in the US except for the War of Independence (1775-83). That is what commies, enemies of liberty and terrorists do. Bernard Saunders swept the New Hampshire primary and tied with Mrs Clinton in Iowa vowing ‘political revolution’ if elected president. There is no chance he can secure Democratic nomination let alone the White House, but the exhilaration greeting this curmudgeon’s radicalism has me rubbing my eyes in disbelief. Is this really America; does its youth cheer wildly for this, by its customs, unheard of programme! This is what Saunders proposes: End a pattern of privileged accumulation at one pole and mass dispossession and alienation at the other; universal health care, which means castration of the rip off insurance and healthcare industries and taming the rent-seeking medical profession; tuition free tertiary education; curbs on campaign financing which makes Congressmen, Senators and Presidents yes-men of big money; and tighter controls on Wall Street. Can he do all this? I go along with Mrs Clinton: “Excellent but we don’t have resources to do all this?” But that’s not the point; if millions are cheering this with enthusiasm we are already in the midst a political revolution of sorts in America.
Revolution takes the French version of 1789 as its benchmark; the state, the Ancien Régime, was removed and seeds of a new political order, bourgeois democracy, planted. At the same time economic and class structures were overturned – estates confiscated, land to peasants, capitalism consolidated, French and European markets opened. As integration of political and socio-economic revolutions it is the supreme example of revolution (chicken and egg simultaneously). October 1917 in Russia also combined the political and socio-economic, but for reasons too far reaching to discuss here it was premature and eventually perished.
In England economic transformation and national unification were complete before Cromwell relieved Charles I of his pate in 1648. After some seesawing, the Bill of Rights and Constitutional Monarchy were finalised in the Glorious (or Bloodless) Revolution of 1688. [Of thousands of books; my favourite is Christopher Hill’s Reformation to Industrial Revolution]. Economic alteration and English independence originated in the reign (1509-1547) of Henry VIII. The Act of Supremacy (1534) was followed by confiscation of monastic lands (Dissolution of the Monasteries 1536-1541) which threw a fifth of England’s lands into the lap of merchant and nascent industrial classes. It is not flagrant concupiscence but English independence that underwrote Henry’s conflict with the Holy See. Consolidation of a new order was carried forward in the reign (1558-1603) of his daughter Elizabeth I who understandably has gone down in history as Gloriana – England has done best in the reign of its queens. Hence the political revolution (1648-1688) was a postscript to an already far advanced socio-economic transformation – the chicken had hatched long before the egg was laid.
Sometimes an egg was laid before the chicken hatched; or sometimes mislaid, only egg no chicken. Ever so often political revolution as transformation of the state happened, but concomitant overhaul of the economic order was absent or long delayed. From time to time over five millennia rebellions overthrew dynasties and upstart peasant leaders rose to sit on the throne but the social and economic order remained unchanged till China’s 20-th Century revolutions in 1911 and 1948.
Two Nineteenth Century examples are the industrial and cultural makeover of Japan (the Meiji Restoration starting 1868) and Bismarck’s unification, industrialisation and modernisation of Germany starting 1871. Mandela cut a similar deal. Whether spoken or tacit, he acquiesced to the survival of property relations in exchange for the abolition of apartheid.
There are other justified usages of the term revolution that preserve its substance. One speaks of the technological revolution of the last generation. The fall of European communism in the 1990s is referred to as a revolution or counter-revolution. Ten million Muslim refugees are pushing the doors and taping the windows of Europe. When all is done resettlement in European will be even larger. We are witnessing the unfolding of a demographic revolution.
Lanka cannot fulfil its democratic potential till racism is purged
The dialogue on revolution was brought to Lanka by brilliant young Marxists returning home from Europe and America in the 1930s. The narrative they carried was the classical version steeped in the French and Russian upheavals; transformation of the state intertwined with abolition of property relations and the concomitant system of law. They were replaced by an alternative social and economic order. For decades ‘revolution’ meant this unity bequeathed by the classical examples, the conversation was further defined by Trotsky’s theory of an uninterrupted revolution and Lenin’s critique of the state. This paradigm was ingrained not only in those of us who grew up in the innards of the left movement, but also in Lankan intellectual dialogue at large.
But the world was faithful to this pattern only exceptionally; China, Cuba and Vietnam. The rest was carried on the bayonets of the Red Army (Eastern Europe) or was an overflow of Chinese and Vietnamese communism into the Korea and Indo China. But revolutionary overthrow of the state without economic and class metamorphosis, or mutation of property systems without liberation in the domain of state power, both occurred aplenty! The Burmese junta, and Mozambique and Angola after colonialism, are three exemplars of the latter.
The world has seen complex changes but the theory of revolution has moved much less. The conversation now unfolding is pushing interpretations of Marx towards new frontiers. If chauvinism is purged in Lanka, and I have argued that it can be done, it will be a political revolution of significance and that is what motivated this essay all along.