Progressive Politics & The Right Kind Of Left
Bharatha Premachandra’s wife and daughter
Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra’s grieving daughter (and possible political successor) was probably not even born when several of us in the SLMP’s leading ranks rapidly disembarked at his house in Kolonnawa, an hour after he had survived the assassination attempt by the JVP. His aged father, a trade-unionist of the Old Left, had surprised the hit-man by pinioning him, giving Lakshman the chance to grab his weapon and shoot. That evening or the next day, Bharatha Lakshman, clad in shorts, rolled into a conclave of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party founded by Vijaya Kumaratunga (himself killed by the JVP). His act was a model of resistance to Pol Potist ‘Red fascism’. At the time we were both members of the Political Bureau of the SLMP (I was elected an Asst Secretary of the party).
That the brash young man who had survived a JVP assassin was slain decades later by bullets fired by those on his own side, is suffused with a dark if obvious irony. His death may, however, have not been entirely in vain. Not only was his killing “a flash of lightning that illumined reality” (Lenin), his funeral may be seen by future chroniclers as a turning point or seismic social shift; the point at which hitherto passive civic consent visibly withdrew from the culture of political violence. The funeral also saw a gathering of the vast moderate centre of the country’s politics and democratic political tradition, signalling a significant dissent against violence and impunity in our society.
The killing of Lakshman and the social mobilisation at his funeral brings to the forefront the issue of ethics, and if the Left in any part of the world stands for anything it must stand for ethics and ethical values. For the Left to be successful it must occupy the moral high ground and be seen to do so. How do the JVP and its breakaway faction, the UDF, fare in that respect?
The failed armed revolutionaries of the Latin American Left were able to be popularly elected into office within thirty years while the JVP remains on the margins, because – among other things– the character of the violence that the Latin American Left engaged in was romantically Quixotic or Robin Hood like, i.e. ethically justifiable, as that of the JVP in its second insurrection of ’86-’89 indubitably was not. Those Latin American Leftists who engaged in violence similar to that of the JVP’s second uprising, such as Peru’s Sendero Luminoso and Colombia’s FARC, have been unable to make a democratic comeback. The JVP, having made such a re-entry, has been stuck somewhere halfway and is in a decline, however temporary or lengthy that may be. Is the JVP or its breakaway UDF willing to make an honest self-criticism of its past, and if not will it ever overcome the haunting social doubts about its core character?
The competition between the mainstream and dissident JVP, complicated by a four cornered struggle between the JVP, UDF, NFF (ex-JVP) and JHU could trigger, for the militant Southern youth, an unhealthy escalatory dynamic. While the JVP and UDF are the real competitors for the more serious minded and politically literate youth, it must be recalled that the leaders of all four organisations were in a single party and one side of the barricades: they were all in Rohana Wijeweera’s JVP and were on the violently anti-devolution side of the barricades in 1986-9.
Neither the JVP nor the dissident UDF seems to know how to handle the dimension of anti-imperialism and relations with a government that adopts an independent foreign policy and is manifestly under external pressure, even threat, from the Empire. Then again, that’s not a failing limited to them, that’s an abiding flaw of the Lankan Left, which never adhered to the Marxist-Leninist dictum of ‘unity and struggle’ in relation to a government that is itself threatened by imperialist hegemonism and interventionism.
It is incumbent upon any left formation to identify the basic Marxist-Leninist stand in matters pertaining to a dependent, peripheral capitalist formation such as that of Sri Lanka, in danger of political domination from outside while facing an unresolved nationalities question within. One would reasonably expect the Left perspective in such a situation to consist of the opposition to secession and the defence of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity; the opposition to imperialist and neo-colonialist hegemonism, interventionism and the defence of national sovereignty; a solution to the nationalities question based on a degree of political space that accommodates a deep-rooted collective identity (an electoral map of the areas won by the TNA and the TULF at successive post-war, post-LTTE elections reaffirms an irrepressible existential reality); and the opposition to neoliberal economic policies and cutbacks of social entitlements while proposing an attractive and realistic economic policy for growth with equity as in Lula’s Brazil.
A progressive and Left politics must operate on two fronts: state and society. Today, Left politics cannot be about the overthrow of the state, but its remodelling. The state must not be sought to be overthrown not only because of the balance of forces and the danger of anarchy, but because the disintegration of the state will only strengthen the forces of separatism and external intervention/domination. In an era of neoliberal globalisation and neo-colonialism renamed ‘liberal humanitarian interventionism’, the state especially in the global south, must be strong enough to intervene in the market on behalf of the citizens and also defend the nation, i.e. national sovereignty from external hegemonism, and national unity and territorial integrity from secessionism.
However, progressive politics often gets it wrong three times over. Firstly, it confuses a strong state with hyper-centralisation and defends or opposes one while confusing it for the other. Secondly and more importantly, it confuses the state with the status quo. While in some cases the defence of the former requires the defence of the latter, it is not always so, and sometimes the state must be defended against the status quo and at other times, a progressive status quo must be defended against the reactionary elements of the state. Thirdly, it confuses the state with the government or the administration. For a progressive Left formation, it should be perfectly possible to defend the state and its core interests while criticising this or that act or aspect, policy or faction of the government/administration, or indeed while taking its distance from ‘the government’, ‘the administration’ and the governing ethos.
The victories of the Left in contemporary Latin America have been founded on broad Left and progressive unity, no more so than in Uruguay where the Tupamaros have been at the core of the ‘Frente Amplio’ (Broad Front) which has lasted for decades. Can the JVP and/or the UDF overcome the Wijeweeraist DNA of vicious sectarianism? The future of the Lankan Left may depend on it. They could do no better than to diligently read, study, absorb and apply Antonio Gramsci. That’s pretty much what the Latin American Left did.
While the ethical factor of a barbarically violent past unaccounted for honestly, may always remain a ceiling for the JVP’s or UDF’s ascendancy, there is a largely ethical role that these radical Lefts can play in any society. The Left must be the voice of justice and fair-play in every sphere and for everyone. This does not mean ‘levelling down’ in the name of social justice or protesting only about class exploitation. It means standing up for universal fair-play. An authentic Left should be the party of resistance to all forms of injustice and oppression of anyone. It should be the Ombudsman, the Tribune, of the unfairly treated and downtrodden everywhere in the country. It should be in the vanguard of the struggle against racism and all forms of social discrimination, be it ethnic, linguistic, religious, gender, class or caste. It should unite the exploited, oppressed, marginalised and alienated, overcoming all barriers of language, region and ethnicity. It should campaign for equal rights of all citizens and the actual, active exercise of those rights. It should stand, not so much against globalisation as such, but against neo-liberal globalisation, and for another globalisation, an alternative globalisation. It should not only be a party of resistance but also of radical reform and renovation.
A project for a sustainable Left resurgence depends on whether it can effect a difficult synthesis, of a radical realism, offering a politically mature citizenry a convincing vision of a different, more advanced and better Sri Lanka and the world. It should stand for and embody a different, more civilised social behaviour. It should represent and incarnate an exemplary citizenship. It should not be mired in traditionalism but be the vanguard of transformation, in the first instance of social consciousness, mentalities and outlook. It should not be imprisoned in history; it must make history, exiting the cycle of conflict and breaking through to the 21st century.