24 September, 2020

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The State Of The Left, Post Independence: They Can Still Act

By H.L.Seneviratne

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

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Latest comments

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    A very analytical superb article. Please get this article translated into Sinhala and Tamil and distributed to people in the four corners of SL.We will see how they will react to your challenge.

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    As usual HL makes his case well. My reservation is that his explanations are 100% subjective, how individuals (say Philip) failed personally. But why? Maybe partly subjective weaknesses, but at another level it is necessary to sketch the socio-economic changes in the bowels of society (rise of national capitalists, effervescence of petty-bourgeoise, culture versus socialism, etc), which pressures these leaders were not able to withstand – or unable to integrate into their Marxism. Why? Because bourgeois democracy was no push over; it has been a powerful and seductive political arrangement, as the post-war ex-colonial world shows.

    Where I have very different expectations from HL is in respect of the Dead Left. The DL is NOT a continuation of the Old Left. The OL went into coaalition with the intention of transforming the state and ushering in socialism by parliamentary means. Theoreticak revisionism yes, but not cheap personal opportunism. The DL is in Cabinet for perks, jobs, petrol allowances, etc. An ‘ahasai polowai’ difference. The DL will not and CANNOT do what HL calls upon them to do.

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    Right on Seneviratne.I think you are right to pinpont Phillip G,s merging with the MEP as a pivotal event in the decline of the left. I think however one must go back a few years and charge him for allowing various personal — and unMarxist– factors to split the robust LSSP and go his own way.He continued to carry on a veritable vendetta against the leaders of LSSP,sabotaged all attempts at a unified left movement and eventually supported the UNP and contributed to the demoralisation of the entire progessive movement.
    Yet,we must not forget the de Silvs and Perera too followed Philip’s path as did Leslie G who in fact, along with Vivienne G, ended up as Sinhala nationalists!And CRde Silva drafted a Sinhala-Buddhist constitution!!
    Please correct me if I am wrong.

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    The left movement is dead and long gone ..killed by the these so called remaining two timing “leftists” Vasideva, Tissa and DEW Gunasekera. If they had iota of so called leftist principals in them they cant be aiding and supporting a regime like this which is totally against the proletariat or the working class. They are mere actors with their own hidden agendas. many a article have been written about their duplicity but they are a bunch of thick skin team and none of the criticism against them would deter them in their quest for survival merely for luxuries, benefits and whatever that come with ministerial positions.
    The author is right when challenging them “I challenge you to summon your conscience, and to live up to the ideals of your founders” …..but all to no avail…..they are a bunch of wolves in sheep clothing.

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    Thank you Prof. Seneviratne.. Like you, all the best people have left Sri Lanka, or if they are in the country are silent because the rot and ruin is all pervasive, among the so-called progressive groups and the regressive political, military, business circles… But then this seems to be the case in most parts of the world including the US and Europe where inequality has reached stinking and hideous proportions under the TRICKLE UP capitalist economic system.. take Greece or Spain or America’s working poor..
    You are right, Vasu the dead leftist is the WORST of them ALL.. Thissa V stinks to high heaven too, Dew may yet be salvaged.. These geriatrics who refuse to groom and give over to the younger generation that they have ruined, while living off the bribes of the dictatorship are the scum of the earth and have done all the damage for generations to come..

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    All those left parties are impotent Prof H.L. Seneviratne, now its the Frontline Socialist Party with the entire student Union under its wings emerging.

    Govt is so scared of them , daily the leaders on constant watch by their security services, already they have abducted & killed many student activists.

    Still they are unbound & unafraid.

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    Well said Prof. HL.

    The Left should leave now. To quote you “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.”

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    Unfortunately, we cannot claim so much for our left leaders. When in power they were as bad as others.in !971 they condoned the killings of young people, who had very little connection to any serious political activity. They never apologised in public for that. Where were their moral principle?. In 1972 they took the first step to destroy judiciary. If they have not done that, JR and others would not have dared to do what they did. We must not romanticise them.If they stood firm, we would still have strong enough organizational capacity to resist all these others.

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    The Old left you are talking is dead. The future will be made by the hands of a young generation. Frontline socialist party is the pioneer of this emerging generation.Long live the revolution!Long live the FLSP!!

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    Dear HL
    when I read yr last 2 paragraphs from ‘even at this late stage…the Left can still act’ I began to wonder just how remote you have become from this country. ‘They must do this’ ‘they must do’ that…. I imagine some of those who may still have a genuine claim to the title ‘Old Left’ (like Lal Wijenaike, perhaps?), have long been trying to energise those who claim to speak on their behalf in Parliament in precisely the ways you urge. They just about managed to induce some feeble abstensions over the impeachment motion, but even then the whole LSSP contingent didnt stick together. I have long since ceased to think of those MPs as ‘Old Left’ or ‘Dead Left’ I just think of them as leftovers, lacking even a spark that might be rekindled by exhortations from any who grieve for this country. Nethra Goonewardena’s article and some of the responses to it and to yours bewail the sad loss to this country of many of its finer sons and daughters, and the failure of the less worthy remainders to come forward to lead a ‘common opposition’ at this time, but maybe we badly need some of you (who are perhaps less worn out by the last 40 of 50 years of simply staying on & trying to make decent useful contributions to life here)to come back to inspire and organise such an opposition. But first of all you must shed any illusions about leftovers enjoying rather more than crumbs in their ministerial or other capacities. And just look at the bloggers to CT. How many of them even blog in their own recognizable names? We dare not, except for a few who already fearlessly write regularly in their own names to the press here etc.
    I now wait to be chided by one of them for some minor infraction or error I have made in my own blog. How can we EVER ‘pull together’?

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      Well said Manel Fonseka and the same is true of the women’s movement in Lanka. Its leaders like Nimo are in bed with the dead leftists and or are on the international conference circuit. Like the UNP leadership they prefer NOT to talk to the people and educate them and are rather on the international jaunt and conference circuits..!
      The world is topsey turvy today

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      Correcting a careless sentence which should have read: ‘But first of all you must shed any illusions about leftovers GIVING UP up enjoying rather more than crumbs in their ministerial or other capacities.’

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    The article is very good. It is useful to all Sri Lankans

    Siva

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    Vasu, Tissa & DEW have left the Left and they can no longer say they ‘have nothing to loose’. They will cling on to their perks like leeches and it’s naive to call on them to resign from the government and join the opposition. Let them enjoy the perks and the patronage of the Mahinda regime end up in the dust bins of history

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    The socio-economic conditions of the 1950s-1980s when Left parties like the LSSP were attractive to the working class, the educated in the minorities and students is now past history. The global free-market system and the coming of Information Technology have turned the world topsy-turvy. Russia and Eastern Europe are now identified with the Capitalist world. More significantly China is almost the leader of the Capitalist world. Cuba is taking the bend – leaving only the hermit kingdom of unpredictable North Korea to obstinately embrace Marxism-Communism – momentarily.

    Phillip jettisoning Marxism to join the MEP in 1956 and NM, Colvin
    and friends – with Pieter not far behind – genuflecting before Mrs B throwing decades long principled politics are probably symbolic of the fact there is the virus of anti-Tamil communalism in almost all in the Sinhala political leadership. Bahu remains the lone wolf but does not carry much punch.

    Bracegirdle is a further example the Anglo-Saxon community producikng extra-ordinary men and women who play iconoclastic roles based on
    their personal dedication and principles. Their commitment set them against the might of the British Empire. Their roles were recognised and honoured by posterity in the countries they helped and even in
    Britain. India saw Annie Besant and the South African struggle many from the white side. These leaders were not contaminated by the germ of communalism.

    The Sri Lankan political landscape will be defined by alliances connected to the UNP and the SLFP with parties coming from the Buddhist clergy and the JVP playing their own secondary roles. The Tamil political leadership will aim at a united stand while the Muslim leadership will review their stand whether to go alone or go with the two main Sinhala political groupings – in view of recent developments.

    The LSSP and the old left, I believe, will remain fringe formations.

    Senguttuvan

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