By H.L.Seneviratne –
The decline of the Left is one of the many dark chapters of post independence Sri Lanka. This is especially so because the people had the distinct faith that the Left would deliver a prosperous, happy and just society. The failures of the Left are both political and moral. They are perpetuating these failures to this day, and are unwilling to take the steps they readily can, even at this late hour, for the good of the people who placed infinite trust in them. The Left parties have, instead, chosen to enjoy the perks that accompany political or related office.
The Left had heroic, even romantic beginnings. The founders of the first Left party the LSSP, were educated, capable, unblemished, honest and principled. They were nationalists without being tribal chauvinists. They were cosmopolitan in their nationalism, and dreamed of an inclusive nation with a diverse tapestry of citizens: Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and all other (numerically minor) groups. They were anti-imperialists, but not cultural purists. They were modernists and were going to keep, indeed nurture, the good things the country got from the west, like modern rational ideas of society and polity, and democratic institutions. The society they were dreaming of was not a carbon copy of the totalitarian state of the then existing socialist world, the East Bloc, and later China. Their ideal instead was closer to the social democratic society of the type we have today in the Scandinavian countries. The Bracegirdle incident demonstrated their resourcefulness and their willingness to take on the highest of powers when their ideas of justice and fair play were encroached upon.
Their finest hour was 1947 when they, with their breakaway groups and other small parties as partners, became the official opposition. The LSSP would have done even better if not for the splitting of the Left vote by the inability of the LSSP and the Communist Party (CP) to come to a no-contest agreement. For example in the Horana electorate, the UNP candidate A.P.Jayasuriya won by a majority of some 600 votes, whereas the Communist candidate Anagarika Dharmapriya polled some 2000. The CP candidate was a real spoiler, because the LSSP candidate M.T.Pieris polled an impressive 14,000 votes. Had the CP the sense to withdrew its candidate in favour of the clearly more popular LSSP candidate, he would have won by a comfortable majority of some 1500 votes over the UNP candidate. This same pattern occurred in several other electorates as well.
Among their ardent supporters in their heyday were radical, mostly young, Buddhist monks, especially those affiliated with the Vidyalankara monastic college. The support of these monks however, later turned out to be rooted in narrow Sinhala chauvinism, and, as soon as SWRD Bandaranaike formed the SLFP, these monks abandoned the LSSP and defected to Bandaranaike’s chauvinist camp. But while it lasted, the connection between the monks and the LSSP was fruitful. The monks acted as “cultural brokers” for the LSSP leadership who were largely westernized. Even more important, these monks were the translators of Marxist terms for these leaders. These terms have come to stay, and form part of the technical vocabulary of our Political Sociology as practised in Sinhala today. Even though it was the pre-existing Labour Party that first used the public demonstration and the strike as instruments to further worker welfare, it was the LSSP that brought these to the centre of political protest. Being the oldest political party, the LSSP also made a significant contribution to the growth of party based democratic politics. Among their other achievements is their support for the Free Education Act that enabled its passage despite strong conservative opposition, although in the view of the LSSP, it didn’t go anywhere far enough.
Philip Gunawardena is rightly considered the “father of socialism” in Sri Lanka. He more than anyone else among the LSSP founders had active, hands on experience in labour organization in England and elsewhere. Unfortunately and ironically, it is Philip who took the fateful step that destroyed not only the LSSP but as we can now see, the entire socialist movement, and laid the foundation for their more serious problem, moral decay. This is the decision Philip took to join the MEP coalition formed by SWRD Bandaranaike to launch the election campaign of 1956. As a device of coming to power Bandaranaike had accepted lock stock and barrel the narrow Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist platform of the Buddhist monks of Vidyalankara and elsewhere, and the Sinhala educated elite of the countryside.
Such a narrow programme was contrary to the principles of Marxism that Philip Gunawardena supposedly professed, and to the inclusive policy that was fundamental to the LSSP. But to see him in the best light, he may have thought, however naively, that he was strategically “infiltrating” a nationalist capitalist party that would ultimately give him and opportunity to capture state power. To once more see him in the best light, and give him the credit he deserves, during his tenure as a member of the MEP cabinet, he was able to get into the law books a radical piece of legislation that ensured a fair share and security of tenure for tenant peasant farmers (The Paddy Lands Act). But far reaching as this was, it was too little a reward for so massive a sacrifice, that of derailing the entire socialist movement that his defection signified.
The Communist Party joined the MEP coalition too, but they were numerically negligible and discredited anyway as puppets of the Soviet Union, as demonstrated, for example, in the overnight change of their view of World War II from an “imperialist war” to a “people’s war” when the USSR got into the war as a partner of the “allies”. In contrast, the blow that Philip dealt was severe. It not only deprived the LSSP of his rich and valued experience, but more than that, it lent the chauvinist SLFP an entirely undeserved aura of “socialism” at a time socialism meant something, both in world history and the history of Ceylon. Neither Philip, nor the LSSP nor the socialist movement, nor indeed the country as a whole was to ever recover from the injury of this betrayal of the movement by its own “father”. This paradigmatic capitulation to the schemes of wily politicians bent on coming to power by hook or crook was to be repeated by the socialists many times over, with disastrous consequences to themselves and the nation, as is perfectly obvious today to all except the present leadership of the “Traditional Left”.
We can only speculate as to what would have happened had the father of socialism never joined the MEP coalition, and the Left remained united. It is however a reasonable speculation that the MEP would never have got the label “socialist”. They would have tried, but a strong and united LSSP with Philip and others to lead it would have made that claim hollow. The MEP had no rational economic programme, its power-mongering project being largely religio-cultural, and meant to appease the “indigenous elite” that brought it to power. The economy stagnated, and there was widespread unemployment, especially of the educated youth. Thus, conditions were ripe for the entry of a party with credible potential for meaningful economic development and social justice. No party would have so perfectly better fitted that bill than the Left. As we now know, this scenario, with a failing economy and rising educated unemployment as its centrepiece, in fact came into being, but an intelligent and effective agency to give it leadership was missing. Thus by default, that leadership fell into the lap of a pseudo-Marxist adventurer, who went on to form a chauvinist party called the JVP. Had Philip never broke away, and the rest of the LSSP never joined hands with the SLFP as it did in 1965, it’s they, the Left, that would have given leadership to the forces arising out of the failure of the SLFP. That would have been an able and cosmopolitan leadership that could, among other successes, have helped build an inclusive nation. JVP, LTTE and State terror would never have raised their ugly heads in such an inclusive nation, and that nation, with its mosaic of ethnicities and religions and equal citizenship, would never have had to endure the mass suffering and large scale destruction inflicted by these three monsters.
For the sceptical reader who might consider the above as mere speculation, my answer is that it indeed is. But I speculate responsibly, with a clear and positive purpose, however unrealistic it may be. That purpose is to point out that even at this late stage, and after all the colossal damage done since Philip joined hands with the reactionaries in 1956, the Left can still act. They can still demonstrate that they have a modicum of concern for the people, and a modicum of substance as moral beings. They can still demonstrate that they have a modicum of concern for the future of the country as a democracy based on equal rights and the rule of law. To do so, they must resign their ministerial and other positions forthwith, and join the Opposition. They must sit down with all opposition parties with a view to building a common opposition to the present misrule by (1) an energetic programme, by means of frequent mass rallies all over the country, of making the people aware of the extent of the present misrule, and the depths to which it is leading the country, and (2) by staging relentless public protest at incidents of impunity, corruption, crime, discrimination and nepotism. When elections draw near, they should as the common opposition, map out a manifesto, a rational and humanist Cintanaya, stating the ingredients of a methodical programme of economic development with social justice. They should use the privilege of speech they enjoy in Parliament and use every minute of allotted time, every day the Parliament meets, to expose the present regime’s abysmal record. These actions will constitute a better exercise for the Left leadership than enjoying laid back the luxury and perks of office that ultimately derive from the sweat and blood of the very working people for whom they are supposed to give their sweat and blood; and than bringing daily disgrace to their founders who dedicated themselves to the task of ameliorating the conditions of the people. Taking this step is also more honourable than to practice the logic of the Left’s “firebrand” Vasudeva Nanayakkara who reportedly said he is opposed to the 18th amendment, but was voting for it.
Tissa Vitarana, DEW Gunasekera and other Left leaders, I am not holding my breath. But I chide you. I accuse you. I challenge you to summon your conscience, and to live up to the ideals of your founders. In the unlikely event you act on what I suggest, there is a whole nation waiting to salute you, and golden letters waiting to be written about you in history books. Or you can continue in fealty and disgrace. The choice is yours.
Read the Sinhala translation here translated by Yahapalanaya Lanka