21 June, 2024


The Sins Of The Fathers: Revisiting The Old Left & Its Two Traditions

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

75 years after Independence and a deep economic crisis constitute the best moment to re-valuate the Left movement of an earlier generation. Uditha Devapriya is the keenest contemporary student of the Left tradition and his recent articles on the Left and Nationalism in the Sunday Island provide an excellent opportunity. This is more so for me because he has been kind enough to quote me and mention me as a catalytic source for his two-part essay. 

For purposes of transparency and convenience of ‘location’, I belong to what is described in the USA, as the ‘Old New Left’, as distinct from the Old Left and the ‘New New Left’ (the postmodernist left). The leftists of the Baby Boomer generation which I belong to, were, all over the world, members or supporters/sympathizers of the Old New Left, which at the time was simply the New Left. As with many of my generation all over the planet, I regard myself now, and have been for over half my life, a ‘social democrat’. That’s where I’m coming from. 

I regard the old Left as heavily responsible for the abyss this country is in. I also draw a distinction which isn’t usually drawn, between two streams, the Samasamaja and Communist traditions, within the Old Left. I regard the Communist tradition as less culpable and having made far more constructive a contribution than the Samasamaja tradition to postwar, post-Independence Ceylon/Sri Lanka. I regard the tragedy of Sri Lanka, of which the failure of the left is a major factor, as being at least in part due to the exceptionality (I almost said eccentricity) of the island’s left in that the Samasamaja tradition preponderated over the Communist tradition at least until the mid-1960s or 1970.            

I shall return to the two traditions at the conclusion of this article.

Meanwhile, and rather differently from Uditha Devapriya, I locate the strategic blunders of the Left not so much in their specific relationship to nationalism, but in their overall political thinking. The analytical key to understanding the Lankan left is to recognize the obvious contrast between its strategy, outlook and policies, and those of the global Left, mainly but not only in the global south in the colonial and postcolonial periods.

It is not that as Prof Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara alleged, the left ignored or was hostile to Sinhala Buddhist cultural nationalism. It is that it was guilty of a far vaster blunder. It ignored the tradition of anti-imperialist rebellion and with it, patriotism or the progressive aspect of nationalism. Having done so, it later swung to the opposite extreme and grossly overcompensated by implanting Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in a hegemonistic position. 

Fidel Castro referred to the Cuban Revolution as the continuation of “a hundred years of struggle”, by which he meant anti-colonial rebellion. From Vietnam to Nicaragua, every left movement worthy of the name strove to re-establish continuity with its militant anti-imperialist traditions. Not so the LSSP. When did it ever commemorate the great rebellion of 1848 which forced British colonialism to bring in reinforcements from India? When did it hero-ize Puran Appu? When did it hold public rallies at the (neglected) marker for Puran Appu in Matale? When did it have banners and posters bearing the visage of the heroes of the 1848 rebellion? When did it seek to inculcate a burning sense of anti-imperialism by keeping alive the memory of the bloody repression by the British which was taken up even in Westminster?

The answer to all these questions is ‘never’. The LSSP lacked the real fire in the belly that every Communist and revolutionary leftist movement in the global south displayed by their fealty to the martyrs of their respective countries’ anti-imperialist rebels. It is only within the Communist Party and that too mainly in the Southern province and identified with Dr SA Wickremesinghe, that one encountered that anti-imperialist, patriotic fire. 

It is this same LSSP ideologues who ignored Puran Appu’s patriotic rebelliousness, who also inscribed Sinhala and Buddhist hegemonism in the republican Constitution of 1972, traducing Republicanism by constitutionalizing discrimination, thereby spawning the Tamil New Tigers in the very year of the Republican constitution—twins, as it were.   

The LSSP combined its disdain for the tradition of armed anti-imperialist rebellion with a disdain for its fellow leftists and the concept of a united front. When the left and independent progressives had a real crack at forming the first administration of Independent Ceylon following the general election of 1947, it was the LSSP that scorned the idea, vilifying such a coalition as a “three-headed donkey”.     

The same fastidious LSSP lost its purism and swung merrily from the feudalistic Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s “sari pota” (as the New Left put it), in 1964-1965 and most notoriously 1970-1975 –until it was sacked. 

The real test for the Old Left came in 1953 with the August 8th Hartal called by the LSSP and CP. The people responded magnificently from North to South. Police shooting killed 8 demonstrators. The UNP Cabinet was evacuated to a ship. Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake resigned. Instead of pushing the struggle forward as far as it could go, the LSSP and CP called it off in two days, and pretty much promised in parliament that it would not repeat the action. While it broke many promises it made to the people over decades, the traditional Left loyally kept that one promise to the bourgeoisie. It never pulled anything like the Hartal ever again.    

After the August 1953 Hartal, the Left should have formed an alliance with SWRD Bandaranaike who had chaired the hartal rally on Galle Face Green though his party the SLFP did not participate in the uprising. The Left did no such thing, with the exception of Philip Gunawardena. Had the LSSP and CP taken the lead and a bloc of the SLFP together with the three left parties contested the general election, it is doubtful that the lobbying by the All-Ceylon Buddhist Congress and the Eksath Bhikshu Peramuna have succeeded and the slogan of Sinhala Only been adopted by SWRD’s SLFP. 

As A. Sivanandan bitterly observed in Race & Class, the LSSP and CP didn’t come forward to support the Bandaranaike-Chevanayakam Pact in 1957. 

The same LSSP and CP that did not form an alliance with SWRD after the Hartal, did form a coalition with the SLFP under the leadership of the far more reactionary, feudal-minded and nepotistic Sirimavo Bandaranaike.       

It was not a question of the LSSP having learned the lessons of its sectarianism and compensating for it by entering a coalition with the SLFP under Mrs. Bandaranaike’s leadership in 1964, because there was no better option. The LSSP broke the three-party United Left Front (ULF) coalition of 1963-1964, the candidate of which had won the Borella by-election, so as to comply with Mrs. Bandaranaike’s beckoning finger and accept the Finance Ministry, instead of contesting the 1965 election as the reunified Left, the ULF, backed by the Joint Council of Trade Union Organizations (JCTUO) and its 21 demands.  

When in coalition with the SLFP and CPSL in 1970-1975, Finance Minister Dr NM Perera immediately flew to Washington DC for the meetings of the World Bank and the IMF, but for years failed to travel to Moscow, the Eastern European capitals or Beijing at a time when the socialist countries (the camp was divided between the Soviet-led COMECON and Beijing) were at their peak economic strength. 

Having dominated and distorted the Lankan Left for decades, the SamaSamaja tradition now rests in peace, courtesy of the Sri Lankan voter.

The Communist tradition is rather different. It was not in and of itself, revolutionary—except for a brief period in 1948 at the 3rd Congress in Atureliya under the leadership of Harry Abeygoonewardena. 

However, it was fecund. It produced revolutionary children. Many were born from the womb of the Maoist breakaway from the Communist party led by N Sanmugathasan, but not all. Some came directly from the old Communist party. 

Take every single group which ever went up against the postcolonial Ceylonese/Sri Lankan state from the mid-1960s and faced serious repression at its hands be it in the form of death, stiff jail sentences or heavy indictments; every single group that was ready to go pick up arms and underground and stay underground if needs be, willing to take the existential risk of resistance, rebellion and revolution (as they saw it); every single group with members who were willing to practice what they had read and absorbed. They all issued from, identified with and belonged to the (global) Communist tradition. This is true even today, of the JVP and FSP.  

The Samasamaja and Communist traditions had different political and intellectual cultures. To illustrate the latter, GVS de Silva and Newton Gunasinghe came from the ‘tougher-minded’ Communist formation.  

Because it was the local chapter of a global movement, the Communist tradition was consequential in a preponderantly positive, constructive sense. Especially in the global south, debating Ernest Mandel leads to one kind of praxis; debating Gramsci and Guevara, Althusser and Poulantzas, leads to an altogether different praxis.  

The Communist tradition lives on, in that it gave rise to generations that regard being ‘a communist’ as something special; something to live up to. It connected generations with the fighting traditions of Vietnam and Cuba. The Chinese Communist tradition connected young people with Mao’s People’s War. The Communist tradition has shaped the mind and spirit of generations. It survives and continues to steel the soul.       

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is the author of ‘Fidel’s Ethics of Violence’, Pluto Press, UK  2007 and ‘The Fall of Global Socialism: A Counternarrative from the South’ Palgrave Macmillan, UK, 2014. He was the 1st accused of 23, indicted on 14 counts under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency in the High Court of Colombo in 1986.

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Latest comments

  • 16


    Most of the Sama Samajist leaders were UK-educated, some with PhDs, with deep links to that colonial power. Would they have thrown away their social/class standing to engage in the kind of bloodshed and revolution that communists speak of?

    That said, your own allegiances to Premadasa and MR had negated any ‘revolutionary spirit’ you might have shown in getting arrested by JRJ under PTA. Your father might have pulled strings with JRJ for your eventual release. Talk about throwing stones from glass houses. A lot of people, including you, played a role in the country’s descent into mass murders, racism, and now bankruptcy — economic, moral, and intellectual. Don’t come up with revisionist history now.

  • 6

    Dayan is an integral component of the old entrenched corrupt system as much as Ranil, Mahinda, Dinesh, Vasu, …….. and the rest of the geriatrics.

    Thank Lanka’s lucky stars ……. if revolution/Aragalaya wont sweep them away ……. nature/death would!

    Native, You better be young!!

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