By Kumar David –
Let it not be said that the good that men do is oft interred with their bones while the controversies live on. Whatever our criticisms of the political and intellectual leaders of the golden age of the Left for half a century from the 1930s, they are giants in comparison with those, across the board whether residual old left or stunted new, from a multitude of sects and cults, that today make up a confusing spaghetti. The negativism of Sri Lankan intellectual discourse is such that the standard fare of symposia and seminar invariably includes an item called the ‘failure of the left’, insensate to the truth that the left’s successes, primarily in its golden years, much outweighs these detractions.
In so saying I am awake to the paradoxical bond that those of us of Vama Samasamaja legacy, who in the prime of our lives in the 1970s and 1980s resisted the LSSP leaders, bear to our predecessors. One can be incalculably influenced by a guru, and owe an indelible debt to a master, but still diverge, dissent and eventually part company. I acknowledged at a symposium in 1999 what I owe Hector Abhayavardhana with the words “Hector has influenced the way in which I think”, and Samasamajists of my vintage there present, who though they too had opposed coalition politics nevertheless readily recognised a similar debt.
Hector passed away on 22 September 2012 at the age of 93, the last of that history-crafting band of men and women, who through the pre and post war years, laid down the format of left politics in this country. They each played their different roles; NM “the best prime minister Sri Lanka never had”, unrivalled hero of the working class and constitutional scholar, Philip firebrand but extinguished by age and events, Colvin orator par excellence, Leslie a rock and as clear as an icicle, and Doric with a mind sharp as a razor. And in this pantheon where did Hector fit? I believe Hector was the finest historical materialist dialectician of them all; his forte, to think starting from fundamental categories and to think deeper and farther than others. This, a whole generation of Samasamajists, especially and most important, those who disagreed with him, learnt from him.
My association with Hector commenced in 1960, the year he returned from India already a much respected socialist and theoretician; me than a mere podian just past 18. Hector, not NM, was the primary and preliminary theoretician of coalition politics and my boyhood home one of many places where great battles were fought; fought in historical materialist categories of class, economy and state-power. The debate was about a bourgeois that had failed to unify the nation and rise to national leadership, the small influence and semi-rural nature of the working class outside the plantations, the preponderance of the petty bourgeoisie in backward countries, about capital, the world context, and imperialism. It was a sophisticated case and synchronised with the world of the times –Nasser, Sukharno, Ben Bella, Castro and later Allende.
The many examples of the palpable autonomy of bourgeois democracy from blatant rule by the bourgeoisie itself, was seductive as an alternative road leading, through systemic transformation, constitution making, land reform and trenchant budgets, to socialism. The task the old left set itself was not to procure miserable cabinet portfolios, petrol allowances and jobs for the boys; no that would have been unworthy of man and women of that stature. Their project was making the democratic state a platform for social transformation. Setting themselves any lesser task would not have been worthy of these larger than life personalities.
Eventually Hector and his comrades failed. In part the external world turned against them in the 1970s; history is merciless with projects that arrive after their appointed time. In part they erred in practice (the treatment handed out to the Tamil minority by the Coalition Government) and partly in the dialectics of their reasoning. All this however must await a longer and more carefully written essay though the essence of the error is encapsulated in this surprisingly undialectical passage from Hectort’s ‘Categories of Left Thinking’.
QUOTE: “The left in Ceylon cannot continue to function on the two planes of parliamentarianism and doctrinaire (sic) revolutionism simultaneously. The split attitude that results from it makes effective action on either plane impossible. The stage has been reached when it is no longer possible to postpone a decision about this”. UNQUOTE
In the first half of the 1970s Jayantha Somasunderam, Ajith Samaranayake, Rajan Philips and I worked closely with Hector to bring out the Nation; I think it was every Sunday evening that we met at his 56 Chitra Lane home to plan the next issue and share out the writing. We were Hector’s youth league. The expulsion of the left from the Coalition by Mrs Bandaranaike and the exacerbation of the conflict between Vama and the leadership drew the curtain on the Nation and this phase.
The next major event in my relationship with Hector was more than twenty years later when Paul Caspersz, Marshal Fernando, Silan Kadirgamar, Rajan Philips and I organised the Hector Abhayavardhana Felicitation Symposium in 1999 to celebrate his 80-th birthday. The proceedings came out as a book edited by Rajan and published by Marshal’s Ecumenical Institute. Silan helped raise the money and Paul lent his name and stature as figure head. Hector delivered what I believe was his last important political speech at one of the evening gatherings arranged in tandem with the Symposium.
During the next thirteen years Hector’s health failed and he was largely confined to his home. I am not aware of any important functions he undertook. We the old faithful would visit him a few times a year. The last time I called on him, in March this year, clearly ill health was getting the better of his incisive mind. Now finally, inexorable time has claimed a formidable thinker of the Samasamaja tradition, but he will be long remembered and deeply respected by those who learnt from him.