Lanka’s Left, the State and the Present as History

Photo credit: Vikalpa

The notion of the present as history is of course borrowed from Paul Sweezy’s 1953 book by this title which adopts the standpoint of presenting the present as an ongoing process in which the past meets the possibilities pregnant in the future. The timing of an essay using this caption is inspired by the Seventy-fifth anniversary of the LSSP which fell on 18 December 2010. I will lead in to a discussion of the state with a few comments on the LSSP’s relationship to the first of five categories into which Sweezy, elsewhere, partitions the Communist Manifesto – historical materialism, classes and class struggle, the nature of capitalism, socialism, and the road to socialism (The Communist Manifesto after one hundred years; Monthly Review, August 1949).  The state is not mentioned here, it is a topic that Marx explored later in the context of the 1851 coup d’état of Napoleon III and the Paris Commune and lies embedded in the theoretical framework implied in Capital I and III.

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”) is the concept that forever changed politics, economics, sociology and ideology; it has now seeped into all science. All discourse on society and the relationship between society and nature now bears its imprimatur. Furthermore, though the term systems theory did not emerge till the Twentieth Century – in cybernetics and automatic control, far removed from Marx’s domain – he was its de facto creator. Systems theory is about the interactions within and between complex interacting structures such as, in his case, the economic, political, ideological and military instances of a social whole. Structure, hierarchy, determined and determining, and the relative autonomy of subsystems, such relationships, though obviously not in this terminology, underpin his exploration of events and societies. He sought to think systems and the interaction between complex systems from materialist foundations.

Historical materialist and systemic modes of thought drove the LSSP from its inception to the mid-1970s and anchored its leadership of the working class and trade union movements, inspiration of the middle classes and its grasp of the nature of the state, pre and post colonial. The left’s collapse in recent decades is the practical side of forsaking theoretical perspective. The SLFP-subjugated neo-LSSP, neo-CP and DLF’s desecration of principles is synonymous with abandoning their once avowed raison d’etre, a Marxist perspective. Hence, the gimmicks of the UPFA-Left are different from 1970-75 coalition politics since the latter, even if flawed, was rooted in strategy, the former has lost sight of all intellectual discourse on the state.

The bourgeois democratic state

The capitalist mode of production distinguishes itself from all previous modes 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; there was little distinction between state-emperor-court and the ruling classes, their identity was direct, the extraction of taxes and corvée labour, brutally explicit. The symbiosis of state and ruling class was so manifest that instrumental descriptions of the state are meaningful. 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. In absolute monarchies the identity even permeated language; Henry V did not converse with Charles VI during breakfast; no England was chatting up France over bacon and eggs! The very person of the monarch embodied 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 it is a feature of all capitalist state forms. Though this autonomy is constrained as I will discuss anon, it is not a charade, a counterfeit or an illusion, it is real. The fascist state is so independent of the ruling classes that it physically abuses them. The welfare state is so susceptible to pressure that it can drive a capitalist economy to paroxysms of inflation, deficit and breakdown. Electoral politics in a parliamentary democracy can threaten the hegemony of the ruling classes. Nicos Poulantzas, among others, explored these concepts in Political Power and Social Classes (New Left Review Editions 1968), but couched it in the convoluted argot of the 1960s European Continental new left, that it made reading his book akin to choking on hardwood splinters.  Still the core is worth extracting because the tantalising door opened by this autonomy seduces the left all over the world, sometimes reasonably and sometimes not, into populism, class collaborationism and reformism. I will take up this thread in Lanka in a moment.

First, however, some remarks about the limits of relative autonomy. When the democratic state undermines the capitalist economy, crisis arrives. The post-war Labour-led welfare state in the UK was responsive to pressure, which in time built unbearable burdens on the capitalist economy. Eventually, the ruling classes responded with Thatcherism’s big stick rolling back benefits, imposing harsh cuts and abolishing the welfare state. When stagflation and the good life of America’s most celebrated post war decades debilitated American capitalism, Reagan’s neo-liberalism arrived, curbed populist modalities and morphed the state.

In the developing world it was stark; the autonomy of the state was abolished altogether as two examples show. Salvador Allende’s democratic government was snuffed out when in his hands the state become a revolutionary instrument for social change. In Sri Lanka, in 1978, a parliamentary democratic state was jettisoned for authoritarian constitutional Bonapartism to thrust the country into neo-liberal economics and a relationship with global trade and investment markets.

The seductive autonomy of the democratic state

No question about it, the bourgeois democratic state 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 to date. It was not born overnight like Botticelli’s Venus emerging full-formed from the sea, but evolved through immense struggles spread over centuries. Cromwell’s English Revolution of 1648 climaxed forty years on in the constitutional monarchy of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but it took till 1926 for women’s suffrage to cement democracy in the UK. In France, the land of the Enlightenment and the great 1789 Revolution, women won the vote only in the Fourth Republic of 1945. From American independence in 1783 it was eight decades to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, but in the fullness of time it took another century to secure the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Democracy came to Japan, Germany and India only after WW2; Brazil and South Africa even later – I am choosing great state examples. From the triumph of the capitalist mode of production to the autonomous bourgeois democratic republic has been a long, slow and arduous journey.

It does not surprise me that the state-forms associated with post-capitalist modes of production have been monstrosities, Soviet Stalinism, Eastern Europe, or dictatorships to varying degrees – China, Vietnam and Cuba; but it is still early days.  It is unlikely that China or Vietnam will revert to capitalism and it is reasonable to expect, in the long view, that democratic states founded on non-capitalist modes of production and property relations will emerge. This is neither to whitewash authoritarian states nor weaken the battle against them, but one needs to be realistic about the timescale to which the tectonic forces of world history responds.

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? The goal could be social democracy (Europe), the overturn of property relations (Salvador Allende), reaching for a social order beyond capitalism (Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia) or writing a new constitution (the Communist project in Nepal). There is no a priori answer; it depends case by case, on circumstances and power balances. European social democracy has a chequered balance-sheet; Allende was drowned in blood, but was it foreseeable? The betting season is still open on Chavez, Evo Morales and Nepal and some outcomes are less certain than others. However, there is no denying the seductive lure of the relative autonomy of the democratic state as an instrument for social change.

Against this background was it a betrayal for the left to enter into a democratic coalition government with Mrs Bandaranaike in 1970? Was the eventual failure to transform the state and the economy foreseeable and chiselled in stone as Bala and Edmund had it even then? Or was it a justified cake-making project that went wrong only in the eating? The hindsight answer doesn’t count; it is what to do then that is a measure of strategic thinking and statesmanship. This is the question that faced the LSSP in its then present as history. Those concerned with strategic political decision making will understand – that rules out political neophytes and the current UPFA-Left.

And another lot, modern-day old-fashioned (this is no oxymoron) Leninist revolutionaries shunning bourgeois democracy and treading, exclusively, the purest path to revolutionary victory are seeking the Holy Grail in forgotten places; as did the JVP of 1971. The relationship between the road to socialism and the relative autonomy of the bourgeois democratic state is perhaps the trickiest question confronting the left movement today in the present as history.

Let me next turn, in hindsight, to how and why NM and his comrades got it wrong. Of course 40 years on, even fools like you and I can work it out; let’s see.

Compromise, identity and leadership

The decisive error of the LSSP and its junior partner the CP in the 1970s was not so much entering a coalition but the way they conducted themselves in coalition. The left compromised on issues when it ought not to have. Rampant abuse of power by MPs including the chit system for government employment, widespread corruption of SLFP’ers, robbery of state property such as after the estates take over, and crucially, acquiescing in the oppression of the Tamil minority, these were some of the culpable articles of compromise. Would taking a stand have led to the break-up of the coalition government and was it wiser to have remained silent so as to achieve greater and grander goals? No, not just in hindsight, but right then and there the answer was no as was clear in ‘real-time’ to the Left (Vama) Tendency in the party.

When not yet a teenager I gravitated to the LSSP during the Hartal and only a dazzled student who crept into the electric atmosphere of the 1964 Samasamaja Conference; a plum for the Secretary of the University ‘Local’! But by the 1970s, together with others in Vama, we were young men and women, a great deal more mature and witnesses to the disastrous progress of coalition politics. The warnings signs were crying out to be heard; booming out you could say in the case of the 1971 insurrection, when a whole generation rose up. Tearing the country apart you could say when alienated Tamils were sent to the wall to take an oath to create their own nation. Shouting from the rooftops, you could say, when shortages, queues and prices drove the profane to scrawl crudities on pictures of the prime minister at prominent road junctions.

The greatest bungle was that the left parties were in a daze as the post-colonial pluralist state morphed into a Sinhala-Buddhist one over a period of about twenty-five years starting 1956. By Sinhala-Buddhist, I mean the hegemonic ideology of the nation, constitutional revisions, changes to the functioning of the state apparatus, making the armed forces and to an extent the police mono-ethnic, and the political alienation of the Tamils to a point where there was territorial dual power and civil war by the 1990s. The second great botch was that the left was blithely insensate to the reality that by appeasing the mildly authoritarian populism of Mrs B’s coalition it was clearing the road for the real authoritarianism of JR Jayewardene. (En passant, it is phoney to excuse the sordid sycophancy of today’s left ministers as a predestined outcome of 1970s coalition politics).

To get back to the 1970s, the LSSP continued to compromise and stonewalled even its internal critics, yours faithfully included: “Do you want to break-up the government comrade, long before our work is done?” Bernard, Leslie and Colvin would fire back (foxy old NM was the first to see that things were going amiss). In recognition of this loyalty to the cause of coalition politics what did the left get? It was kicked out in 1975, bereft of support and ridiculed as a laughing stock. Still, that generation of leaders was not akin to today’s epiphytes, hanging on for cabinet posts and perks of office. So why did they compromise? Why did they allow their left identity to wane?

It would have been possible for some leaders to stay in cabinet, while the party itself pursued a vigorous and critical political line among the people. It would have been possible to step out of cabinet but stay on the government benches pursuing an independent line of pressure. Many tactical options would have opened up if the party’s head was turned in a different direction. The point was that the leadership sought to move forward using the instrument of the state in which it was a stakeholder as the principal weapon of progress. It could point to the new constitution, the budgets, land-reform and the plantation economy. That is to say the relative autonomy of the bourgeois democratic state was thought to be an adequate instrument for carrying through fundamental changes of historical import. The strategy was not about using the foothold in government as a platform for mobilisation of the people outside government; the strategy was to use the hold on the state to bring change through the instrumentality of state power. This didn’t happen and this is why I say that the grave error was not actually entering coalition, but rather how coalition politics was conducted.

The end result was not only empty handed expulsion from government but also the loss of a generation to the JVP, the alienation of the Tamils from the left movement and thirdly, impotency in mounting popular resistance when authoritarianism and the dismantling of democracy came in the shroud of JR’s constitution and neo-liberalism. The LSSP and CP had lost the masses; they could no longer summon them to action. For the first time the LSSP and CP had lost the working class and intelligentsia, lost their base in the Western, Sabaragamuwa and Southern provinces, and lost control of the city streets; all because they had lost their left identity.

An interesting question is why could not Edmund, Bala, Karalasingham, Percy Wicks, Reggie Mendis, a talented, principled and experienced pool that broke away to form the LSSP(R) win the vacated ground and emerge as an alternative? The answer is that they removed themselves from history; they had no presence in history. Had they remained within the mass left movement their presence would have mattered and they would have influenced events. Had they remained in the mass left they may have succeeded in changing how coalition politics was conducted and been the vehicle of an alterative strategy; they would have been a decisive ally in what Vama was not strong enough to do alone. In this context as one who was deeply involved in both Vama and the NSSP that later emerged from it I have no doubt that the former was the far more important phenomenon.

What now?

The Rajapakse regime will not buckle tomorrow, maybe not for a few years, but when it does, and with the UNP in extremis, the alternative is the left. There are two options, the obvious one the JVP, the other the as yet tentative left-identity faction consolidating in the LSSP. I do not need to say much about the JVP except two points. The JVP is wrong on war and devolution, but no way is it an anti-Tamil communal party. The communal parties of anti-Tamil arson, looting, rape and murder are the SLFP and the UNP. They and they alone are the demalu marau vehicles of Sri Lanka. Secondly, the JVP has changed from a conspiratorial entity to one that is more willing to work within a democratic framework. The complex experiences of the last two decades have had an effect, and in any case revolution means social transformation, not running around with hand bombs.

The new LSSP left grouping emerged in the run up to the party conference in October 2010 at which event it was roundly beaten. The perks and promises that lining up with Minister Tissa and Member of Parliament Padmasiri offer are an unbeatable lure for the majority of party members. But this is changing. Remarkably, the left group has continued to consolidate and spread its ideas and revived a broad seminar series through the Socialist Study Circle.

The LSSP left-identity group may well be the rallying point for a social democratic alternative in Lanka.