By Uditha Devapriya –
The third of four articles delving into the Left movement in Sri Lanka.
Somewhere in the late eighties, with the collapse of communism, the world that had hitherto been split into two camps shifted into an “Us versus Them” dichotomy of a different sort, this time between the multilateralists and the unilateralists. As Professor Nalin de Silva so eloquently put it, the world didn’t become multi-polar, which means, obviously enough, that history did not end. Fukuyama was wrong, Huntington was not. Superpowers had been built on the assumption that there was an enemy to be fought, somewhere, and it could include entire continents and cultures and civilizations. We were promised that life would get simpler. It did not. The truth is, it could not.
Today the multilateralists have, for all intents and purposes, sided with the unilateralists. Vast wars are embarked on, vast sums of money are spent on weapons, and what was described by Eisenhower as the military-industrial complex has expanded so exponentially that no number of leaked documents can do justice to its scope. Life couldn’t get simpler because the idea of two superpowers fighting against each other, or keeping the peace with each other, insured the rest of the world against one country, one empire, gaining a monopoly over everyone else. Once that was out, things could only get more complicated. Sadly, for better or for worse, that is what has transpired today.
Right after the end of the Second World War, when the Soviet Union began to be demonised and considered as the Enemy, down to the eighties and nineties, when the promise of a world free of bloodshed and conflict was aborted, despite the collapse of communism, by the commencement of the Gulf War, aggression was largely based on rhetoric, because both sides of the global polity knew, at least to an extent, that fighting against one another would mean suicide as far as they, and the world in general, were concerned. That is why we look back at the sixties and seventies as the era of James Bond fighting unseen global elites who want to flare up war between the Communists and the Free World so as to appropriate power for their members. As far as history, literature, and propaganda went, it was a dangerous time to live in, but it was also a nostalgic time, the time of spy novels, irresistible conspiracy theories, and the Profumo Affair.
Obviously, the tactics, the strategies, and even the philosophy guiding the movement against the Global Left changed during the eighties. The West has, for whatever reason, been shy about calling out its opponent in clear-cut, cohesive terms, which is why it tends to smother those opponents with politically correct slogans: the Evil Empire, Drugs, and of course Terror. As historians have pointed out, after all, even the American Civil War has been smothered with such feel-good slogans and labels (the best of them, and in fact the most mythical of them, being the “War against Slavery”) that people do not know the real intentions behind Lincoln’s campaign against the slaveholders. There was and is nothing different in the way the West, the Free World that is, sought to endear itself to nations that were springing out of communism and socialism. One way of suffocating the Global Left in this regard, therefore, was the empowerment of a Global Anti-Left. That came about in turn with the rise and institutionalisation of the NGO intelligentsia.
This was the fatal contradiction at the heart of the Old Left: its susceptibility to the machinations of outside parties that had no interest, much less enthusiasm, about prolonging the leftist ideals it stood for. That contradiction was by and by the outcome of the discrepancy it reflected within itself between, as I mentioned last week, the stated aims of an equal society and the largely bourgeois ethic of the leadership it helped prop up. In Sri Lanka radicalism was, until the emergence of the New Left, limited to the “saadukin pelena wun” rhetoric of the Communists and Trotskyites, whose lasting achievements to the political sphere of this country cannot be discounted (they were, after all, behind the drive this country tried to move with towards an industrialised society, something the colonial bourgeoisie could not attempt, much less achieve). Unfortunately with the dissolution of the Old Left’s credibility courtesy of the 1971 insurrection, it felt rather abandoned. It needed to make a comeback. That comeback came about when we substituted an ethnocentric project for a class-oriented one within the Left Movement.
Hidden beneath the sloganeering of that movement was one key concept that the NGO intelligentsia was able to, inadvertently, pick up: the withering of the State. In Marxism that refers to the means by which a society of equals could be attained. It indicated an absence of not just class barriers, but also class consciousness, and it had to be preceded by a society that privileged the State as a necessary evil. What this meant, clearly enough, was that the State was always an instrument, and never an agent that could act on its own. When the intelligentsia intruded on the Left Movement in this country, it made use of this concept, or theory, and helped propel a private sphere that would remain independent of the State while making the State its primary instrument. The main channel through which this contortion could be realised was the Old Left, and the main method through which the Old Left could be made to yield to the contortion was the substitution of ethnicity for class. After 1956, after 1971, the single most significant political phenomenon in this country, for me therefore, is the emergence of the federalist-devolutionist discourse.
The man chosen to head this movement was Vijaya Kumaratunga. There were several advantages to be gained by having Vijaya. Firstly, he was popular. He courted voters in both the South and the North, and at a time when Sinhala politicians were considered as parvenus by the top rung of the LTTE, he was amenable even to the likes of Prabhakaran. (The fact that his funeral was attended by members of the LTTE attests to this.) As I have pointed out elsewhere, he was adamant in considering the war against the Tamil Tigers a chauvinist government-led project against the Tamil people. For the supporters of the conflict, it was the only way through which centuries of interethnic disparities could be corrected (this is true of the Sinhalese and the Tamil equally), but for the likes of Vijaya Kumaratunga, it was nothing more than a “jaathivadi yuddhayak”, a term he used during a television interview. Vijaya was the Southern politician that the North had been looking for, and he was the perfect foil to the then ascendant New Left, which as I observed last week was doing a pretty good job of being cultural nationalists and fervent Marxists.
Liyanage Amarakeerthi in an otherwise critical piece on Gunadasa Amarasekara and the politics of the Jathika Chinthanaya contended that the problem with our political parties and the NGO sphere was their inability to produce engaging, original thinkers. With respect to the latter I think the problem goes deeper: the truth is that our NGO sphere has been unable thus far to produce an sincere enough thinker who can go beyond the monolingual elite and capture the hearts and minds of the monolingual masses and/or the bilingual middle class. They have failed to do so even today. A careful perusal of Susantha Goonetilake’s book Recolonisation will show clearly that these intellectuals were well equipped with the language of the coloniser. But they could not acquaint themselves properly with the cultures they were involved with, Sinhala or Tamil.
Amarakeerthi himself noted this: “Writing mainly in English, they could not really reach out.” This explains, to a considerable degree, the cynicism with which we regard those self-styled leftists academics, who write one piece after another justifying the policies of this government and any government that has supported their fundamentally flawed views on majoritarian hegemonies and chauvinism. I call them flawed not because they don’t merit scrutiny – no one can deny that a hegemony based on Sinhala Buddhism does exist in Sri Lanka – but because they don’t go beyond lambasting it by trying to find out reasons for the hegemony and its wide appeal among the people of this country.
What happened after the bheeshanaya is interesting to reflect on. The Vijaya Kumaratunga Front (the United Socialist Alliance) collapsed almost immediately after the man’s tragic murder at the hands of a New Left operative. The party that he and his wife had created congealed into an influential political movement, one that immediately forced the Old Left it had been associated with to be its vassal. Chandrika Kumaratunga, in what was seen as a landslide victory, swept into power promising change (based on the federalist-devolutionist discourse that the USA was premised on). It’s a testament to her foresight, her vision, and her policies that not even two presidential terms by her then most serious contender from the SLFP, and a potential third (which didn’t materialise), could erode her ideological sway. What we see today therefore is a return to that political discourse, though minus the Old Left, which has bifurcated between her (the Jayampathy Faction) and her erstwhile contender, Mahinda Rajapaksa (the Vasudeva Faction).
Where this has led us to, and what it means for the New Left, I will explore next week.
*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com