10 August, 2022


The New Left: A New Hope?

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

The last of four articles delving into the Left movement in Sri Lanka.

Not too long ago before the American election unfolded and upset what was predicted to be a Hillary Clinton victory, I posted the following comment: “Clinton is a domestic dove and foreign policy dove. Trump a domestic hawk and foreign policy dove.” This was a simplification on my part, but one that was based on the belief we held as sacrosanct at the time that Donald Trump would deliver on his promises and take the United States away from the interventionist streak it had been cursed with since the George W. Bush regime. Things don’t always transpire as we expect them to and now you have Donald Trump, who promised to keep America from foreign misadventures the same way Charles Lindberg had during the Second World War, reneging on those promises.

The comment gleaned two fundamentally opposite responses. One was from an American, an unabashed supporter of Clinton, i.e. a liberal: “You are making a mistake. Foreign policy is almost always tied to domestic policy goals.” The other was from a Sri Lankan with leftist inclinations: “Hillary Clinton is part of the neo-liberal right-wing.” The former tried to equate the two sectors I had differentiated; the latter did pretty much the same thing by contending that Clinton’s foreign policy objectives were based on neo-conservative, neo-liberal domestic and economic policy objectives. It was all a matter of perspective, put simply, and now I realise how erroneous it was of me to make such a simplistic distinction with respect to a political movement involving an entire country.

It’s roughly the same story with our Left movement. There is rhetoric and there is perspective. Being the month of revolution I suppose the leftists will have their say in the matter of “out-lefting” their ideological opponents within and outside their movements. Being the month of Lenin and Marx and Trotsky the new and the old left will probably get together by their denunciations of the capitalist order. And being the month of their own stalled project the New Left in particular will be commemorating their dead, those who were murdered for their political affiliations. (They were, as Malinda Seneviratne put it, killed for the sin of being born to the wrong decade, the wrong convictions.)

They weren’t the only ones who suffered though. They also made the people suffer. That is why perspectives matter. This was evident in the 1971 insurrection, when the likes of Colvin R. De Silva and N. M. Perera referred to them as fascists. But the New Leftists were never fascistic. They were only desperate. Consequently, they made the people desperate, somewhat overzealously. The idealism of Old Left rhetoric disappeared with those who were made to disappear. The second insurrection, bloodier and more enduring (for all the wrong reasons), was born out of this shattered idealism. From that shattered idealism evolved a new idealism, a new hope. For the first time in our left movement’s history, the youth, the educated and the unemployed, got involved. The New Left had done what the Old Left had not: take its fringe movement beyond the upper classes.

The JVP and its affiliated offshoots including the Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya substituted action for rhetoric in the bloodiest, most violent way possible. They were merely stoking the fires that the State, then headed by the UNP, was about to unleash on the country. They were the provocateurs, not that this absolves the State by any stretch of the imagination. Those who joined them were not just hard done by, they were also disgusted by what they felt was a lack of understanding and sympathy by a largely conservative society. There’s a saying that everyone is a socialist at 20, which was pretty much true of the eighties here. I’ve heard stories of teenagers who ran away from home, because of personal tussles with their parents and relatives, and joined the JVP. They were there for a reason. They were sick, tired, and wanted something, anything, that could let those elders know that they cared. They did this by resorting to the gun.

It is true that youthful idealism is at the heart of any revolution, and in the case of the JVP and the DJV that idealism was a response to the contortion of political realities in the South by various State actors, including the president and the military. Nanda Malini in her song “Rana Derane” implores a soldier to not shoot a member of his own class for the sake of vested class interests elsewhere. That was how determined and resolved the insurrectionists were. The result, in fact the only result, of all this was the creation of a powerful ideological apparatus in our institutions: our Universities, our Trade Unions, but not our political periphery where compromise was and is the name of the game and once political membership was guaranteed even the purest of pure revolutionists would turn away from their ideological convictions. No, our New Left was largely self-financed, rooted in youthful idealism, provocative, and opposed to what 1956 bred: a bifurcation of our public sphere between the few who had power and the many who had no power.

The bifurcation of our intelligentsia into swabasha and non-swabasha has been debated by two schools of thought. One of them contends that 1956 represented the dislodgment of the elite (Kumari Jayawardena); the other contends that it represented the substitution of a more insidious form of class discrepancies for the discrepancies that had existed until then (Regi Siriwardena). What this leaves out is a third possible theory, which I subscribe to: that 1956 represented a bifurcation into the swabasha multitude and non-swabasha elite that appropriated privileges so much for the latter that a rift developed within the former between those who wanted to maintain their identity and those who wished to join the elite. The proponents of the federalist-devolutionist discourse, who joined the NGO intelligentsia despite their rural backgrounds, belong to this specific social subset.

The truth is that this Left movement was spent long, long ago. The truth is that the New Left had to be the ideological shapers of that movement. The truth is that not even a bheeshanaya could dislodge the peripheries of power that developed within our Universities. As long as the State remained apathetic, as long as the Old Left was seen to be flirting with the status quo, those peripheries would stay in place. The rift between the Communists and Stalinists on the one hand and the Trotskyites on the other was largely an ideological one borne out of personal convictions. The rift between the Old and the New was more than just ideological: it was a statement for those who wished to do away with the establishment and against that aforementioned social subset that sided with it. The split in the latter, between the JVP and the Peratugami Samajawadi Pakshaya, was not unlike the ideological splits in the former during the forties and the fifties, with the caveat that it has not been enough yet to erode the dominance of the JVP.

I hate taking sides in any revolution but I am aware of the enormous and exorbitant expense, in terms of human lives and resources, that such revolutions necessitate. When the Cuban revolution played out and was later intensified by the threat of outside invasion (courtesy of the US), you couldn’t have sided with José Miró Cardona, who became Prime Minister under Castro and later left, ostensibly disgusted with the new administration’s descent to an authoritarian state, to become his fiercest ideological opponent. When the Russian Revolution played out you couldn’t have sided with the Mensheviks and the reformists. When the French Revolution played out you couldn’t have sided with the middle class bourgeoisie. You had to be the revolutionist or join those who wanted the revolutionists out. Moderates and intermediaries were not popular on either side. Human lives are lost, damage is inflicted on property, but these are prerequisites to any secular revolution and upheaval. It was no different in Sri Lanka.

The truth is that the New Left, be it the JVP or the Frontline Socialists, is the only proper movement in this country which defends the public sphere against the private. The tussle over the SAITM issue, the spate of strikes in the Electricity Board and the railway sector, indicate quite clearly that they remain as potent as ever, even if those who lead these strikes and protest movements are different to and more committed than the individuals who lead their parties. Let’s not forget, after all, that last year’s private bus strike was carried out independently, without the express approval of the president of the Private Bus Owners’ Association. Let’s not forget that in pretty much every movement of this kind a rift exists between the leadership that flirts with the status quo and the membership that survives and thrives on and flourishes through (youthful) idealism.

We ought to be thankful, I should think. Particularly in a context where 37 years of globalisation and neo-liberalism in Sri Lanka has led us, not up the garden path, but down the rocky slope. The private sphere pretty much determines the public, an issue I wish to tackle in a later column. For now, however, let us reflect on this month of revolution, on the men and women who laid their lives, and the idealisms that bred and nurtured them.

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Latest comments

  • 4

    It is not “Right” or “Left” (old or new) that this country needs at this moment. This country NOW needs a “Common Sense Revolution” of the People, of course, properly led by a “Common Front” composed of people of all walks of life, who are selfless, dedicated and endowed with intelligence over academic achievements of glory. That “Common Front” could be from both the “Right” and “Left” provided all agree to a “Common Agenda” to uplift the economic, social and political (meaning Governance) situations to a New Level within a given period of time frame. That “Common Sense Revolution” must be a NO NONSENSE (in all spheres of Governing the Governmental affairs) undertaking that will work for the welfare of ALL the people in the country. At the moment there is some “TREMOR” felt towards such a beginning and hopefully let it grow to a size to surprise all the present political vagabonds who run the affairs of Governing.

  • 0

    you will live in hope like dayan till the cows come

  • 1

    Uditha, the Left has ruined this country as much as Right did. The trade union strikes, hartals, armed struggles all those are the legacy of Left-wing politics in SL. More than that, they have brainwashed many generations with never practical or existed ‘socialism’. That’s the reason for many, Che is a hero and Keppetipola is zero! What we need is some kind of a middle path with strong leadership. Gotabhaya Rajapakshe is the only name that is coming to my mind.

  • 0

    New Left is like some of the shops- when they change hands use the word NEW at the beginning of the old name to differentiate, but the items for sale in it are the same including the sales men.

  • 0

    The new left is the only option that has not been tried out in this country, and I feel we should give it a test run in the coming hustings. They have proven to a great extent to be beyond reproach where honesty, money wise is concerned, having been ministers for a little over an year. When they captured power in the Tissa Pradeshiya Sabha it was adjudged the best local authority.
    The two mainstream parties have proven that they are unable to get this country back on track for the simple reason that they are crooks big time from the days of the Mahaweli diversion. The loans they have taken have not been utilized on feasible projects, but were just ploys to play the taxpayer out.That is why there is a loan repayment tax. The dengue epidemic which can be brought under control in a few weeks has not been controlled for over ten years now. The wheels of justice are super wonky and injustices are ruling the roost. This country needs a drastic change,period.

  • 1

    Uditha yet again shows that he lives in a different world.
    Udita one told us that he gets up in the morning and waits patiently till his mother get up and makes his toast.
    Uditha concedes that there is a West but insists as always, the rest is Sinhala Sri Lanka.
    Uditha surmises that 1956 ushered in the era of swabasha and non-swabasha elites. What the hell do you mean by swabasha Uditha?
    Uditha goes on: ” …The federalists and devolutionists …from the rural sector….are a subsect”.
    Were they subsected because of heir rural background?
    Uditha talks of the left in a Sinhala Sri Lanka. There were left thinkers in the other community too Uditha. In fact the liberation movements gained acceptance because of their stand on equality and fraternity. Their opponents were those who found their privileges eroded.
    Uditha suggests that the old JVP consisted of bored youngsters ‘who had nothing to do so they did it there’.
    To cut a long story short: Uditha is a right-winger masquerading as a liberal..

  • 1

    Uditha is either ignorant of the political history of the JVP or pretending. The latter seems more likely.
    There may have been a touch of idealism among the cadre in 1971. But 1988-89 was not driven by any idealism.
    The JVP is as chauvinist as the UNP and SLFP and at times worse, especially on devolution of power.

  • 0

    in Sri Lanka Left or Right is not centered around politics and economy…but centered around Tamil issue.
    Is the politician Left of Tamil or Right of Tamil either way Tamils are screwed. There is no Tamil Centric politicians

  • 0

    The facts been revealed that there was Not the Old Left Movement has an undertaken by Democratic task of the bourgeois revolution and its leadership of Revolution by two old left parties. Hence they abandon struggle for bourgeois revolution during colonial rule and it agent of UNP since 1948.

    By and large very inception that LSSP and CPC of working classes parties abandoned of that anti – Colonial struggle and after 1948 an independent; it has not that an open working classes are being mobilization to participation of democratic revolution, which neglected by leadership of two parties .

    The old left since 1948 to 1977 that their classes struggle were more or less that confined to struggle for Trading Union movement and improving working conditions of working classes and urban poor.
    All political, Economic and Social that reforms originated which were that curtail for Parliamentary Politics of bourgeoisie framework .and its reforms.

    Therefor two parties(LSSP & CPC ) have not that certain extended their political task which has not addressed an unfinished bourgeois revolution betray by UNP and SLFP led forces last 40 odd years>
    The declined of democracy of character of comprador bourgeois as politic forces has been explain by old left- movement in many ways. But heart of however was betray task of bourgeois democratic revolution by LSSP and CPC. These two old left parties lost front-line politics struggle of bouegesiose task and its revolution?

    The crux of matter is that JVP was not replacement of Old Left which that JVP since 1965 has been an introduced political anarchism and terrorism which was hope for the future masses of democratic form of society in Sri lanka ?

  • 0

    Uditha ,age of young having many strength of writing of political requirement of demand by social classes of Sri Lankan. Ours that politics, economic and social development of post -independent and pre -colonial era has different tasks.. Needless to say the task is incomplete and unfinished by the dead forces of old left parties. An Era has change, but task remain as it is?

    We have come to an identity of Global Order which New wave has shown ,that USA has weaken of her driving force of Imperialism -Capitalism. Therefor subsequently step by step emerging countries are gradually replacing decaling USA hegemony of political-economy of that ongoing forces are pushing Old Order the World into changes.
    The balance of Peoples power has rise ,but lack of an ideas — ideological, political and economic which sustainability path of socialism has not address by New left movement?

    Do not believed Capitalism of USA led imperialism will disappear from Globally by overnight. That is myth of politics which leads to anarchism of political ideology of Terrorism similar pattern of current JVP and Frontline Socialist Party are advocating to be misled millions of masses of people of Sri Lankan by encouraging political anarchism of JVP’s?

    Current JVP and FSP leaderships are by products of JVP anarchism came into being 1965 an idea Wijeweer’s type of “Socialist ” anarchist. The history of JVP has been proved beyond doubt that past 52 years political activities and two revolts in 1971 April and 1988.89/90 has saved purposed the cause for the rise of counter-revolutionary forces .
    By supporting bourgeoisies of Compradors classes remain in political power in governance in State almost 52 years that major accountability must be undertaken by very beginning of JVP exist in Island since 1965 May ?
    By supporting bourgeoisies of Compradors classes remain in political power in governance in State almost 52 years that major accountability must be undertaken by very beginning of JVP exist in Island since 1965 May ?

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