By Kumar David –
Why did the Left enter the 1970 Coalition? Marxism and State Power – Part I . This is Part-1 of an abridged two part version of my chapter in The Republic at 40, edited by Asanga Welikala, published by the Centre for Policy Alternatives in 2012. Part-2 will appear next week.
The drafting of the 1972 Republican Constitution was dominated by the larger than life figure of Dr Colvin R. de Silva (hereafter Colvin), co-leader with Dr N.M. Perera (hereafter NM) of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). Although it was known, rather proudly in the party, as ‘Colvin’s Constitution,’ this terminology is emblematic not just of a Colvin phenomenon but a constitution to which the left parties, that is the LSSP and the Communist Party (CP), were inextricably bound. They cannot separate themselves from its conception, gestation and birth; it was theirs as much as it was the child of Mrs Bandaranaike.
My task is to discuss the affiliation of the LSSP-CP, their avowed Marxism, and the thinking of the leaders to a constitution that can, at least in hindsight, be euphemistically described as controversial. But that is where the quintessential paradox lies. The impossible contradiction is that historically it was the left that had for thirty-five years championed democracy and led the popular classes against authoritarian power; it was the left that stood against the dictatorial excesses of the state; it was the left that had spoken truth to power. Squaring this with the 1972 Constitution and its aftermath is a paradox that has baffled many.
The purpose of this essay is to examine this conundrum, and it requires a careful look at two matters: reflecting on the theoretical foundations of the LSSP, that is, its Marxism; what kind of Marxism was its Marxism? And second, a review of the class dynamics of postcolonial society; changes in socio-economy in the postcolonial world and Lanka, and the left’s perceptions thereof. These readings led the Old Left to make certain commitments in respect of the transformation of the state and the road to socialism; that is the heart of the matter. I write as an insider, someone who was wrapped up in the story, one way or the other, for the last sixty years. As a youngster I was drawn to the LSSP by the 1953 Hartal and later participated as an undergraduate at the momentous 1964 Party Conference.
From my vantage as an insider there is a misconception that I must lay to rest at the outset; it is sometimes said that the left now in government – the LSSP, CP and Democratic Left Front (DLF) allied to the SLFP in the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) – is an extension of the 1970 to 1975 experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. The project the Old Left undertook was the ambitious one of attempting to transform the state and lay the foundations for socialism. Yes, they failed, but the gravity of the task they set themselves and journey they set out on, was one of revolutionary proportions.
The actors in today’s UPFA-Left, as political personages and intellectuals, are a puny caricature of the men and women of yore, but this is not the point. Their project, actually the absence of one, is the stunning difference between today and 1970-75. The Old Left was rooted in a strategic perspective, it intended to change the world it; it intended to carry through a gigantic task. Today’s UPFA-Left is simply there; idle bodies without vision, perspective or purpose. It cannot shift the behaviour of the Rajapaksa government by one millimetre. I cannot imagine the Old Left subsisting on portfolios and petrol allowances. They, strategically, but the perks of office were not the stuff they were made of.
The Marxism of the LSSP: Historical Materialism
There is nothing in Marxism that has better stood the test of time than its foundation in historical materialism. “Man’s ideas, views and conceptions change with every change in the conditions of his material existence, his social relations and his social life” (CM). This is the scaffolding on which all modern economic, political and social discourse is constructed. The way society lives determines how it thinks; the principal ideas of every age flow from material, social and class struggles; the roots of ethnic conflict in Lankan minds lie buried in conflicts and jealousies over possessions and positions with consequences for the very nature of the state. Constitutions are made not to expound men’s ideas in the principles of constitution-making but as manifest expressions of conflicts in society.
The leaders of the Old Left, were living through these thought processes in their political practices. Did they err, if it is agreed they erred, in the specific decisions they made within their Marxist intellectual apparatus, or were they the victims of great changes in the external world outside their control? This essay will allow that both propositions have merit, but it will eventually conclude that greater weight must be assigned to the external factor.
Let me dwell on this paradox. Well before NM’s 1964 ‘coalition proposals’ to the party, Hector saw the changing post-1956 class scene and pushed for an alignment with the SLFP. I remember as a teenager listening to disputations at home where LSSP pundits held forth on the inevitability, or conversely the impossibility (“Oh God what are you saying Hector!”), of governmental alliances. His case was historical materialist; the debates I watched in awe were framed in concrete class, social and historical materialist categories. The debate was about a bourgeois that had failed to unify the nation and rise to national leadership, the small influence and semi-rural nature of the working class, the preponderance and power of the petty bourgeoisie in backward countries, about capital, the world context, and about imperialism.
To be fair, let the historical materialist record show the profound social changes that the post-colonial period ushered in. It has been too much written about to need repetition, but Marxists emphasise changes in class and social relations over cultural renaissance. Marxists focus on the rise of a national bourgeoisie, the role of the petty bourgeoisie in democratic enfranchised polities, the place of new political agents corresponding to these changes (in simpler words, the SLFP), and the politics of exclusion between the island’s two main communities. This is not an only-Ceylon story, but spreads across all postcolonial nations and is lubricated by the explosive post-war boom that provided space and project aid (from Gal Oya to Aswan to Mahaweli). The Cold War allowed these nations to play both sides; it was the age of non-alignment, Nehru, Tito and Nasser.
Let the historical materialist record also show the profound shock that this phenomenal surge sent through the left. If “man’s ideas, views and conceptions change with every change in the conditions of his material existence, his social relations and his social life,” how could it be that now it bypassed the left? This concern surfaced in 1956 but the shock hit in 1960. In March that year the LSSP sought to gain control of government by winning an election but when it went down in massive defeat, disillusionment with the former categories of discourse set in, and disputations regarding strategic alliances with the petty bourgeoisies commenced. Not many outside the LSSP know that if Mrs B had not secured a working majority in July 1960, May 1970 would have happened in July 1960; in any case it first happened, briefly, in June 1964.
Socialism, Class Struggle and Constitutions
It is necessary to backtrack a little because the issue is not only the state but also the socio-economic agenda, that is to say socialism. The LSSP consolidated the working class movement, and after the war the CP joined in. From Mooloya, the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills, the GCSU, the 1948 General Strike, resisting the stripping of citizenship of Tamil plantation workers, to the great final episode the 1953 Hartal, the LSSP stood at the helm of the working class. The Hartal is particularly important, as some have argued that it could have been taken forward to a revolutionary seizure of state power. Nonsense, there was no such possibility; the LSSP acted correctly in taking it forward to a point and then restraining it before it was crushed. The working class came out stronger thanks to the correct tactical handling of the Hartal; 1953 was still part of the gilded age.
Was the failure of the left located in the cultural and ideological domain? This was much debated post-1956 and post- Sinhala Only. I do not agree; the left could have pre-empted SWRD only by embracing his programme, championing Sinhala and sharpening anti-Tamil sentiment. Recall that in socio-economics the left stood far ahead of the SLFP on industrialisation, nationalisation and non-aligned foreign policy. What was missing was chauvinism; to take SWRD’s laurels would have needed snatching his programme, which thankfully the left resisted. Social progress and national unification did not reinforce, but opposed each other, in petty bourgeois culture.
Indeed a postcolonial cultural renaissance blossomed and reached new highs not only in Lanka but all over the world. However, racism, anti-secularism, and hostility to internationalisation were symbiotic with this upsurge. The swell of the petty bourgeois in the postcolonial world was accompanied by the ascendancy of this ideology. The left did not capitulate to Sinhala Only, rather, a reactionary culture, inimical to ethnic unification, but rooted in the socio-economic soil of the times defeated Samasamajism, the only real culture of national integration Lanka has ever known. Historical materialism was unkind to secular intellectual class hegemony in those days.
As a consequence the left was forced to share its dominant position in the working class with the SLFP. In Europe, despite defeats Labour, Communist and Social Democratic parties were never pushed out of their commanding positions in the trade unions by the alternative capitalist party. The reason is the difference in the character of the class itself. The real working class in this country for generations was in the plantations, cut off by space and race. The Sinhala urban working class was mixed with rural peoples and spaces; the gama (village), and constant physical, social and cultural overlap. The left leaders understood this existential reality and edged towards the judgement that there had to be a different way of transforming the state than laid down in the classical texts.
However, this creates a conundrum counterposing socialism and the road to socialism. In retrospect, was the left movement correct to explore other roads, the constitutional road to socialism, in alliance with a strident petty bourgeoisie? The left in Lanka was a socialist left, a new constitution and putative transformation of the state made sense only as a step to this objective. It is through the relationship of state and democracy to socialism that we enter the minds of the left leaders when they consented to write what was largely a bourgeois democratic constitution.
The Seductive Autonomy of the Democratic State
The relationship between the road to socialism and the relative autonomy of the bourgeois democratic state is the trickiest question confronting the left movement even today. The answer NM and his comrades gave to this question is the point of the transition class politics and the road to socialism, to the practices of alliance and coalition politics.
The capitalist mode of production distinguishes itself from all previous modes of production by the autonomy of the state, notably its relative autonomy from even the ruling class and the economy. In all previous social forms, the state represented the ruling class and economy with considerable directness. In the Asiatic mode of production, the state consisted of the department of taxation and the department of war. The emperor and court was the ruling class and this was replicated in the provincial nobility. In feudal society, the monarch of the realm, the lord of the manor and the bishop are both state and ruler; the class itself was the state.
The autonomy of the state from class, crucially even the ruling class and the economy, is a distinctive feature of the capitalist mode of production and is most developed in the bourgeois democratic republic. Though this autonomy is constrained, as I will discuss anon, it is not a charade, a counterfeit or an illusion; it is real and it seduced the Old Left into collaborative constitution-making in a particular global context.
No question about it, the bourgeois democratic republic is the most advanced (democratic, flexible, plural, accountable via the separation of powers, and where appropriate regionally devolved) state form that the world has seen. It was not born but evolved through immense struggles spread over centuries. Cromwell’s English Revolution of 1648 climaxed forty years later in the constitutional monarchy of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but it took till 1928 for women’s suffrage to cement democracy in the UK. In France, the land of Enlightenment and the Great 1789 Revolution, women won the vote only in the Fourth Republic of 1945. From American independence in 1776 it was nine decades to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, but in the fullness of time another century would elapse before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was secured.
Since the seductive power of the bourgeois democratic republic lies in its relative autonomy from the ruling classes and capitalist economy, does it open space for the democratic state to be an instrument of social transformation? How does all this fit the story of coalition politics in Lanka? These are the questions I will turn to in Part-2 next week.
To be continued