By Kumar David –
“The United Left Front (ULF), composed mainly of LSSP members who defied the Tissa Vitarana leadership, and dissidents from the Communist Party and Vasu’s Democratic Left Front, has been recognized as a political party. This is a major victory for left” – Jayampathy Wickramaratne
The division of the LSSP into two factions, a majority led by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne (MP), Attorney Lal Wijenayake (Party Secretary) and Professor Vijaya Kumar, and the left-behind formal faction led by Dr Tissa Vitarana, is unfortunate and was avoidable. It is aggravated by permanent suspension without inquiry of those who later emerged as the Majority Group (MG) from party positions and membership. Their offence was to have opposed the Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) Presidency and at the January 2015 Presidential Elections supported Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena. But the conflict goes further back. It originates in the revulsion of most LSSPers at the regimes corruption, economic mismanagement, racism and family cronyism and the unquestioning obedience of the Vitarana faction to MR and his clan. The majority refused to endorse this and demanded a conference to realign and reflect public outrage. Then pressure on Vitarana became unbearable leading to suspensions to forestall policy reversal and prevent loss of his Cabinet post. (This writer declares, for reasons of transparency, that he is a supporter of LSSP(MG)/ULF).
The split was unnecessary and could have been avoided by the simple expedient of conforming to well-established left-party norms. Vitarana should have agreed to a conference with the majority present to debate differences and explore compromises. If conciliation failed two political resolutions would have been put to the party conference. Thereafter the losers could organise itself as an internal faction if they wished. Vitarana et al turned their back on this and organised a fake event flooded with new “members” brought by Padmasiri now being groomed by Vitarana and Basil (influential behind the scene) to take over as leader when Vitarana makes a hiatus. A ULF source called it “a fake event to pre-empt appalling decisions to support 18th amender, white van abductor and rogue impeacher MR”.
The next step
The next step for the ULF is to hold a party conference as expeditiously as possible and formalise its programmes and policies. Till then there is no formalised position though its views are well known in political circles. What appears in the rest of this essay should be read in this light. I will take up a few points in this and the next subsection. This subsection is about how the left should position itself in the short to medium term, conveniently identifiable with the remaining period of this government. The next subsection of this essay deals with one longer term perspective.
The medium-short term highlights three issues: The constitution, the government’s economic performance and left unity. Take left unity first, it is straightforward. The option before the left from the largish JVP to sects, shrivelled, withered or atrophied – USP, NSSP, Maoists nodules and tinier cults – is stark. There is no prospect, absolutely none whatever, that any will capture state power or emerge as a large and significant national force in isolation by itself. This is a consequence of splits and harebrained divorces from the 1960s if not earlier. Lanka is not alone in this asylum; it was the experience of Greece before Syriza, Spain before Podemos, France even today and others.
The ULF and indeed the whole non Dead-Left needs to think through its 2019-20 strategy; right now it is sleepwalking. Will it remain hitched to Ranil and/or Sirisena as national leader; will the UNP and/or the SLFP be the link to national-level politics? Alternatively, does the left intend to act on its own; in which case first it must become united and second it must develop its programmes.
The condition of the Lankan left is unlike that of the British Labour Party which for historical reasons evolved differently. Labour is broad-based, ideologically plural, and has internalised a range of currents – Trotskyites, Marxists, radicals, liberals, environmentalists, greens and progressive. The minimum “qualification” seems to be a sort of generic social-democracy. And how is that to be defined? It is not set in any rule book or formalised in definitions; it flows from traditions that evolved through the history of the Party – trust the Brits to muddle along!
Although the LSSP in its heyday did accommodate a range of class, trade union, ideological and intellectual currents, for reasons too complex to explain here it did not become a sufficiently omnibus vehicle of left, radical, minority and progressive-liberal politics. Hence by its mere existence it could not avert the fission of the national left into a thousand fragments that sectarianism is heir to.
What did not happen organically has to be done by exertion. The first imperative of the ULF is to place on its programmatic agenda a commitment to left unity. Collaboration will enter the currency of its day to day discourses and percolate further into broader left rhetoric. Such preparation will be fertile soil when opportune events materialise. I emphasise this because some doltish leaders think the left must wait for the right event (nishchitha sidiyak) before opening up the discourse on unity.
The principles that the left espouses on the Constitution are known and don’t need elaboration. In a few words they are, erecting barriers to authoritarianism and militarisation, devolution of power to the periphery, secularism and pluralism, a favourable climate for the protection of less privileged classes and populations (women, children, casts),directive principles on socio-economic rights, repeal of the PTA and repressive laws. (Pity kicking out Wijeyadasa can’t be made a constitutional clause!). Some of this will for sure be reflected in the constitution now being drafted.
There is a critical imperative relating to enactment; a matter of very short-term strategy. The country faces a dilemma at this moment. Negotiating patiently to win wide consensus is essential since the constitution must be acceptable to a large majority of people and all communities. This takes time and I am realist enough to know that could take months. But there is a time bomb ticking – provincial council (PC) and local government elections. Grant for arguments sake that the pro-constitution side suffers a setback at the PC polls. God forbid, but if this happens it can be fatal for enactment. Everyone (except the JO which is bent on sabotage) says “Now is a once in a lifetime chance”, “It’s now or never” and so on. Then the conclusion is inexorable; a stratagem must be found to get the constitution signed, sealed and enacted before the polls. Risking the constitution is unthinkable. What is more pernicious, deferring the PC/LG polls till afterwards, or the monumental blunder of aborting the constitution? Dogs will bark that democracy is being toyed with; let them, the caravan must move on.
The third item for a putative ULF conference is a stance on government economic programmes. Let’s face it, the left including the JVP, is cohabiting with this government for two reasons; turning back the Rajapaksa juggernaut hurtling to dictatorship and enacting a new constitution. Once the latter is done both objectives are fulfilled. No one on the left had illusions of socialistic economic achievements issuing from a Sirisena-Ranil led UNP-SLFP outfit. If something useful comes of it – which seems unlikely the way things are going – it is a bonus. If not, I guess, we will be politely told to bugger off. Conditional support, critical support or parting of the ways are all options in respect of the economy after the big one, the constitution, is cleared. Let’s not make the mistake (one of the many) the LSSP made in the 1970s – not knowing when enough is enough.
The return of Social Democracy in Europe
I may be the only person in Lanka and one of the few in the world who has attempted to theorise and explore the rise of neo-populism in the Twenty-first Century and its acceleration after the 2008 global debacle of finance capital. If you have done me the favour of glancing at my etchings you would have noticed that recently I have been taking another step and suggesting that neo-populism may have peaked and is on a downward path. It is true the neo-populist surge was a disappointment for the left. We imagined that, if the failure of the ‘system’ was apparent to the population and the working class there would be a mass shift to the left. But hell, history is not linear! UKIP, Duterte, Trump, Le Pen and their ilk sneaked in and managed to get themselves a prologue.
The tables seem to be turning on Trump and Duterte. Immanuel Macron is only a halfway house; hand in hand with Angela Merkel the two are a roadblock to the advance of global neo-populism. The huge event in this discourse is Jeremy Corbyn and the rise of Labour; that is the rise of modern, active social-democracy to centre stage. A Labour government and Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister within two years, I am persuaded, is a certainty. What I have my fingers crossed about is whether this is also the harbinger of the resurgence of social democracy across Europe. Forget the yanks for now; they have always been politically backward.
You know where I am going; I don’t need to spell it out. The rise of European social-democracy will be an event of significance for the perspectives the ULF should incline towards. I spent two days at seminars at the BMICH where liberal after liberal was squealing that liberalism is under attack on all sides. Poor sods! They still can’t figure out that liberalism is finished; 2008 finished them. They have no answer to the frustration and misery of millions that brought about Brexit and propelled Trump to the presidency. Liberal values without a socio-economic programme is a dead duck; add the programme and you have social-democracy. I rest my case.