By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Mental habits, however damaging, die hard. Having spent many years erroneously attempting to achieve peace by placating Prabhakaran rather than prevailing over him, the UNP has been repeating the error of searching for a solution while retaining the problem: that party is seeking to overcome its chronic crisis by equivocation and placation of Ranil Wickremesinghe, rather than by decisively rejecting him. This is not the profile of a party that the electorate would consider fit to rule a country facing an existential threat from the fanatical Tamil Eelamist movement in neighbouring Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Diaspora.
The pro-Opposition ideologues and commentators who criticise me for attacking Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP more than I do the Rajapaksas or State, should ask themselves why there is very little criticism of the Tsar and his family in the 45 volumes of Lenin’s writings, despite the execution of Lenin’s beloved older brother by the Tsarist autocracy! Much of those writings are taken up with polemics against various trends and sub-trends in the anti-Tsarist, i.e. Oppositional space. In Lankan politics today, the ‘key link’ (which Lenin and Mao said must be grasped) or the ‘game changer’ (as Barack Obama would have it), is terminating the citizens’ lack of a viable democratic option; ending the absence of competition in the political system and the near-monopoly enjoyed by the regime due to the endemic crisis of the Opposition which in turn is reducible to a crisis of leadership.
Reading Padraig Colman’s critical commentary (‘Gramsci, Dayan and New Labour’, Ceylon Today, Thursday, Oct 24th 2013, p 13) was a delight for its intelligence, style and sly wit (as a recipient of a gift from my wife of the collected Blackadder DVDs, I loved the Baldrick reference). It was also a sharp contrast to the critiques that usually come my way. A sheer sense of disgust and a sense that ‘time is tight’ (as Booker T and the MGs insisted) has prevented me from responding, for instance, to the rancorous, rancid racism of Prof GH Peiris and HLD Mahindapala, who are attempting to mount a rearguard action having recovered from the shock of the reactivation of the Northern Provincial Council which they polemicized against fanatically, secure in their conviction that they had a strongman on their side who would put a stop to all this nonsense of devolution.
I must confess that I am a partisan of the makeover of the Labour Party which made the victory of Blair possible. I maintain that it was far better that Labour eventually won than had the Conservatives been re-elected yet again; that the re-thinking and re-branding of the Labour party was a necessary pre-requisite and therefore a good thing, and that the entire experience has relevance for the renewal of the democratic opposition in Sri Lanka.
Tony Blair’s execrable conduct in the Iraq war—preceded I might add by Kosovo—does not negate the importance of the re-making of the Labour party. Though Robin Cooke had it wrong on Kosovo in 1999, his brave dissent on Iraq proves that there was a position within New Labour (as distinct from the residue of Old Labour) which was healthier than that of Blair, and thus the problem was not with New Labour but its neoliberal perversion which, in foreign policy terms, made it the twin of the neo-conservatism of George W Bush. David Miliband, who waged a crusade against Sri Lanka, is the perfect exemplar of that strange fusion.
The main point of disagreement between Padraig and me concerns the relevance of Antonio Gramsci to the renewal and recovery of the British Labour Party. Padraig regards it as a bit of a reach. The reason that I do not is a rather literal one. The three intellectuals I named (and another I possibly should have) were utterly explicit about Gramsci as the source of the inspiration for their analyses and prescriptions for the understanding of Thatcherism, the critique of Old Labour and the strategic prescriptions for the re-positioning of the Opposition. I have beside me right now, having retrieved it from my bookshelf, a well-thumbed copy of Stuart Hall’s The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, a collection of essays and lectures, one of them with Martin Jacques, drenched with references to and exegesis on Gramsci (including the seminal essay ‘Gramsci and Us’). Most of the pieces had appeared in Marxism Today edited by Martin Jacques and the collection itself had been co-published by Verso and Marxism Today.
Though less concerned with theory, Eric Hobsbawm’s inspiration and points of reference both in his political critique of the Trotskyist supported trade unionist Labour left and his elaboration of a program and strategy for a new Labour opposition, were the politics of the Popular Front of the 1930s, its extension and elaboration in the writings of Gramsci and Togliatti, and the perspectives of the Euro-communists, most notably the Italians.
It is of course true that Hobsbawm, who was proud of his achievement in helping defeat what he regarded as the dangerously ossified leftism of the Trot-trade unionist bloc, felt that the pendulum had swung too far with Tony Blair.
My lapse was in omitting Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe from my list of intellectual influences that helped shift the Labour opposition onto a winning track. That lapse was because their project was never one explicitly one of the political reform and rejuvenation of the Labour party, unlike in the cases of Hobsbawm, Hall and Jacques. However, insofar as they made, in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) a convincing deconstruction of the old notion of the working class as the privileged agency of the socialist project, they helped liberate the Labour party from the grip of the trade unions. Laclau did not lean on Gramsci but rather on Eduard Bernstein. His collaborator Chantal Mouffe however, was heavily Gramscian. (Her partiality for Gramsci and a left reclamation of Carl Schmitt is something I share, albeit in a different, Third Worldist mix, but that is of little relevance).
Across the Atlantic, neoconservative ideologues were to accuse their academic rivals who supported the repeated remaking of the Democratic Party with the candidacies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, of being influenced by Gramsci in their strategic emphasis on culture and education and a war of attrition for the achievement of intellectual and cultural hegemony.
The dramatic and triumphant performance of a New Latin American Left (with its roots in the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 70s) is due at least in part to the deep absorption of Gramscian thinking and strategy in the grasp of the ‘national-popular’/‘popular-national’, as the basis of the formation of expanding social blocs. As noted in a definitive work ‘The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn’, “The growing critique within left-wing intellectual circles of this social and historical vision—which in Latin America was heavily influenced by Gramsci’s critique of the orthodox reading of Marx—marked the gradual transition to new interpretations of the left’s theoretical traditions and the formulation of new theories…The confluence of ideas drawn from Marx, Gramsci and Luxembourg had contributed to the formation of a radical democratic tradition in Latin America…” (‘The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn’ eds. Barrett, Chavez and Rodriguez-Garavito, Pluto Press, 2008, pp. 8, 28)
In Sri Lanka too, the ‘hard road to renewal’ of the country and its society runs through the renewal of alternatives; of a democratic opposition capable of re-occupying the broad centre through a smart patriotism and social democracy.
Just as the British Labour Party had to liberate itself from the grip of the trade-unionists and the Trotskyists and their strategy of frontal assault on Thatcherism; just as the US Democrats had to shift from the old anti-war social welfarist coalition to a new centre, the Sri Lankan opposition has to break decisively from the Colombo cosmopolitan ‘peace NGO’ constituency with its links to the Tamil Diaspora, the antimilitary message, the blocs with tiny parties of tattered Trotskyists, and the LGBT profile of its leadership. While it certainly must eschew a nationalism that is narrowly sectarian, the mainline Lankan opposition has not been perceived since 1999 as national or patriotic! It has to become capable of competing credibly in the new mainstream, without becoming a clone of the Rajapaksa regime.
The failure to do this is not unrelated to the enormous failure of the critical Lankan intelligentsia, including the expatriates, to learn from or grasp the relevance of the political thinking of Antonio Gramsci, his stress on the progressive value of the national-territorial unification of the state, his revaluation of Machiavelli, repeated invocation of the ‘national-popular’ and rejection of ‘cosmopolitanism’ while embracing and exemplifying the universal.