By Kumar David –
“A political party’s attitude to its own mistakes is the surest way of judging how earnest it is and how it fulfils its obligations to its class and the working people. Acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons, analysing what led to it and debating the means of rectification – that’s the hallmark of a serious party; that’s how it must perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class and the masses”. Lenin: “Left-Wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder; April 1920.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has matured; its perspectives today are correct and we (ULF) have joined it in a progressive-democratic alliance for this presidential election, next year’s parliamentary elections, and beyond into the future to nurture a socialist, democratic, corruption-free alternative to the rotten political culture of today. Let that be said at the outset in no uncertain terms before I get on with the remainder of his essay which probes the JVP’s unhappy past.
I am aware that the JVP has reflected on the two principal errors of its past, arrived at some conclusions and made amends by changing its strategies, but I am not aware how deep the evaluation has been. I have no interest in tearful public confessions, only sadists need that; my interest is to satisfy myself and others that the internal critical process has been thorough. As the remark by Lenin nearly 100 years ago quoted at the head of this essay says, that’s what matters. Let me add that at the end of the quote when Lenin says “class” what is in the mind of this master strategist of party building is the party’s cadres.
The two costly blunders the JVP made were (a) ultra-left insurrections in 1971 and 1989, and (b) capitulation to Sinhala chauvinism on the “Tamil question”. I am not aware of any JVP anti-Muslim or anti-Christian bias, so I should not say National Question (NQ), but I will use the term since it is convenient. On insurrection and ultra-leftism, I am returning to the theme 48 years after the LSSP published my little pamphlet Tharunu Ugathunge Deshapalanaya (The politics of youthful intellectuals). Though not of profound depth it can stand up to scrutiny even today as the first Marxist critique of the 1971 insurrection. The English text dates to the insurrection and Ajith Samaranayake’s brilliant translation was printed in huge numbers in 1973 and sold by the party for Rs 1! That’s enough on that, let’s move on.
The blunder Wijeweera and the early JVP made has its theoretical roots in the Sino-Soviet conflict of the 1950s. Wijeweera took the Chinese side for which reason the Soviets refused him re-entry to college in the USSR after a short break at home. He refused to cave in and joined the Maoist wing of the Ceylon Communist Party of N. Sanmugadasan. Mao was steering his adherents all over the world into extremism and therefore disaster. The worst was1964 when Communists and the Chinese community in Indonesia lost half-a-million lives in a military coup after a struggle between Maoist politics and the army. Before that however the unexpected victory on 1 Jan 1959 of the Cuban revolution and the dazzling personality of Che Guevara stunned the JVP leaders (who below age 30 wasn’t at the time!); the Indonesian debacle made little impression.
The ideological stance of the JVP from the 1960s to mid-1990s was to substitute a well organised revolutionary core (the party) for the people and the working class – a travesty of Marxism – and to advocate clandestine insurrectionary intervention of clusters of “revolutionaries” instead of raising the consciousness of the people as a whole (the masses). Lenin would have turned in his coffin in his Red Square mausoleum, but the JVP theory was not inconsistent with Mao’s worldwide stance against “revisionism” and his ultra-left adventurism. You know the whole story; Wijeweera-theory the 1971 putsch and a lightning speed grab for power by armed cadres was thought to be the revolution. That the leftist LSSP and CP were in coalition with Mrs B is not an excuse or explanation; the Coalition Government came into office at the end of May 1970, but planning of the 5 April 1971 insurrection was in progress many months ahead of this D-day. The LSSP-CP “sell-out to the bourgeoisie” affords little justification for the JVP’s insurrection thesis.
Though enraptured by the iconic blaze of Che, the JVP did not abandon towns and cities and take-off into the hills to form “focos” – vanguard groups for guerrilla attacks to focus discontent and light the fires of insurrection. Actually, the JVP was not wedded to Guevara-Debray ideology; it was a rural-urban outfit playing big people’s games in a charade manned by young people. The suppression of the insurrection after about a week of uncertainty was foreseeable. I have many a story to tell about life on Peradeniya Campus and disputes within the LSSP in those days, but not now. Let it wait till my grandchildren grow up.
In the above three paragraphs I have given a compressed review of the Sino-Soviet backdrop and internal dynamics of early JVP ideology. There are scholarly works but that is not the same as a reappraisal by a party of itself which we don’t have. There are other crucial points on which I can’t spend three paragraphs each within the limits of this column. I will skip the 1989-90 exploit since it requires 5000 words for itself. Regarding other crucial matters I will only enumerate them. First there is the dominant and uncontested role of Rohana Wijeweera, his political beliefs and his ideology. Of his political beliefs the shortest remark I can make is that he was convinced that an insurrectionary grab for power by a few thousand armed-cadres could transform state and society. His ideology is summarised in the ‘five lectures’ where he outlines a simplistic take on global and domestic history and economy. One lecture is an anti-plantation-Tamil stance in the guise of containing “Indian expansionism”. The final lecture is about what I called political beliefs a moment ago.
A second point is class character. The JVP at its origin was Sinhala petty-bourgeois; neither working class, nor urban elite-intellectual like the LSSP and CP. (Today the JVP has a strong trade union base). It did not have roots, as the LSSP and CP had, among English speaking (and thinking) urbanised Marxist intellectuals who had cut their teeth in the émigré and socialist circles of inter-war European Marxism. The third point then is that absence of book-learned familiarity with the Marxist classics in the early JVP was one reason why the dominance of little-learned Wijeweera could not be challenged by the few intellectuals of those days, primary among them Lionel Bopage and briefly Victor Ivan, Uyangoda and a few others. What I have called a second point, the class nature of the JVP at its origin, has flowed seamlessly into this my third point about ideology.
What is needed today is to strengthen the JVP cadre’s familiarity with global politics and to nurture a deeper appreciation of economic systems and alternatives (finance capital, Soviet-style centralised economic authoritarianism and the new Chinese-Vietnamese option). I think the leadership is aware of the need for cadre education and may get down to it after the hustle and bustle of elections.
My Editor is not infinitely generous, so I must hurry on to the JVP’s other big blunder. Before going further, it is fair that I convey what ULF comrades who interact with the JVP in People’s Power forums have reported back. The JVP is not hostile to Tamils, Muslims or Christians, nor is it Sinhala or Buddhist chauvinist. My few personal interactions confirm this. A welcome evolution but this is not the record from the past. The JVP must face up to and bury that demon from its past in the way that Lenin says these things should be done.
There is little that the JVP can do before 16 November to attract Tamil voters; so badly has its past discombobulated them. To begin with, Wijeweera was a racist who participated in the 1966 effort to scuttle the Dudley-Chela agreement, even against the instructions of his then party, the Maoist CP. It opposed the Dudly-Chelva agreement as Sirima, and to their eternal shame the LSSP and CP, did. Throughout the civil-war it stridently supported the military with anti-LTTE slogans that sometimes appeared to be anti-Tamil. It was the foremost opponent of the 13-th Amendment and filed the court case that broke up of the N-E Provincial merger. (I grant the merger was anti-democratic because the people of the Eastern Province had not been consulted; but in principal merger is not a first step to dividing the country; that is a racist lie). Today the JVP is cagy about devolution requiring ULF negotiators in PP forums to invent imaginative verbal offerings. I could go on but this is indictment enough.
This is a frank but comradely interjection on the National Question. The JVP is a socialist party and its leaders are Marxists; so am I. It would be good if it expedites internal discourse on the NQ as it will surely have to; it cannot much longer duck its own cadres. The big beneficiary of such discourse will be the JVP itself since it is emerging as the core of a left-progressive formation worthy of state and governmental responsibility. The clock is ticking, there may be no more than five years left. Sorry about trying to compress into 1500 words what needs 20,000 words.
The challenge for the rest of Lanka’s left is to understand and explain how the JVP, despite these blunders, has emerged as the principal left party in the country. And to strategize how to work in collaboration with it now that it is open for cooperative business.