Groundviews

A View from the Left Bank

Image courtesy JDS

Each generation brings its own collective formation and experience to the Left project. Each historical period produces its own Left or mutates the existing Left. An abiding failing of older leftists is to fall prey to two opposite responses to a newly emergent left, or a left born of different experiences at a different time. The older generation of leftists, be they activists or academics, cadres or commentators tend either to hail the new left as a proxy for their fantasies, or wag a finger at them for falling short of their (nostalgically recollected) standards and ideals. Both stances–idealisation or condemnation, romance or remonstrance– reflect the generation gap. Neither stance is realistic or helpful.

The Sri Lankan Left consists of three players, listed here not in any order of importance: the old left within the ruling coalition, the JVP, the breakaway FSP (and sundry leftists grouped around it in the Jana Aragala Vyaparaya).

This categorisation must not be confused with the outgrowths of the JVP which number four not three: the parent party, recent breakaway FSP, the earlier schism named the National Freedom Front (NFF) of Wimal Weerawansa and in a tenuous sense, the JHU of Champika Ranawake.

It is pertinent that the founder-leaders of the JVP, FSP, NFF and the JHU were all members of the JVP during its civil war in the 1980s against the Indo-Lanka Accord, the provincial councils and the pro-devolution left, led by Vijaya Kumaratunga.

Weerawansa’s NFF and Ranawake’s JHU cannot be termed parties of the Left (as the latter would be the first to agree), though they are describable as anti-imperialist. Weerawansa’s is a radical Sinhala nationalist entity while Ranawaka’s is a Sinhala ultranationalist formation of the radical right.

The parties of the Left operating within the ruling coalition seem to have less influence on the progressive of ex-left and potentially progressive sectors of the SLFP, than did the LSSP and CPSL on the SLFP in the 1970s, despite which influence they crashed to electoral extinction with the swing of the pendulum. As always the Left within the coalition today seems to have its foreign policy right, but has not yet mastered the tactic of ‘unity and struggle’ especially on domestic socioeconomic and governance issues as well as the nationalities question.

This year, 2012, is perhaps the best occasion for the traditional left to reflect upon a road that it did not take 40 years ago, in 1972, when leading Communist party personalities Dr SA Wickremesinghe, Sarath Muttetuwegama and the Aththa editorial board made their promising move, which proved short-lived, and the left tendency of the LSSP emerged but stayed within the party while Vasudeva Nanayakkara returned from custody only to return to the fold. Had either of these turned out differently, the history of the Lankan Left would have taken another path.

This leaves the JVP and its recent breakaway, the FSP, as the organisations that should engage the serious student of Lankan left politics. For now the JVP has the more stable, ramified organisational structure and national reach, with an impressive group of young parliamentarians, while the new party has achieved a zestful breakthrough among the educated student youth and some substrata of the working people.

The nonsensical charge that either or both these parties are CIA enterprises is as laughably silly now as it was when the charge was first levelled against the JVP in 1970-71 by the leaders of the old Left. There were other, more serious criticisms to be made, but that is an old story. One hears echoes of that ridiculous charge of being imperialist agents, today, in the context of a denunciation of the Arab Spring. Those who make the charge are oblivious to the fact that no less an opponent of imperialism than Fidel Castro has made a clear differentiation between the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, which he has hailed for their ouster by the people of autocrats, and the events in Libya and Syria, in which imperialism intervened and attempts to intervene. There is nothing wrong with the Arab Spring and it must be hailed, not feared—unless one is bent on autocracy; what has to be resisted is the intervention by imperialism to manipulate and manufacture uprisings and to divert and abort their results, as in Libya.

Paris is a place where ex-revolutionaries wind up as ambassadors: my colleagues include several well-educated, cultured, Latin Americans and even a European with backgrounds as revolutionary activists, and include at least two former political prisoners. We have a special camaraderie and a shared intellectual formation and culture, and we each have our stories, our experiences, our lessons learnt. The Latin Americans, for the most part, are lucky, since their movements re-entered democratic politics with the re-openings of space and have wound up in power, engaging in progressive reforms which have made Latin America, together with east Asia ( differently of course) the most energetic and successful experiments on the globe.

My generation witnessed too many leftists die, lives wasted in fratricidal strife; in ideological and political cannibalism. Ranjithan Gunaratnam, more politically literate and cerebral than his rather more ‘hands-on’ brother seems to be, would visit Colombo University in the mid’80s while I was teaching there, and engage in long, quiet, one-on-one disputation in the gymnasium. I never heard that he had engaged personally in any of the savagery towards fellow radical left students that his party the JVP did, but when the ‘blood-dimmed tide’ turned, he was washed away with it. The JVP murdered the brightest of left student leaders of that time, Daya Pathirana, and the latter’s comrades hit back, in understandable and imperative alliance with the state.

It is a different century now, and one hopes the lessons have been learnt. I leave today’s left parties with a few thoughts for their consideration.

  1. Always strive to attain and retain the moral-ethical high ground. That is how the Latin American left survived its defeats and near decimation, to recover and achieve victory. The moral high ground is not simply your sense of self righteousness; it must be shared by the general public and conceded (however privately and grudgingly) even by your enemies. In Sri Lanka what does that mean? (a) Understanding that commemoration of the two uprisings- especially the second- and Rohana Wijeweera, evoke memories among the broader masses, of a time of violence and terror for which the JVP is also, even primarily, responsible. Therefore, having an honestly self-critical and dialectical approach to one’s own lineage and traditions, discarding that which should be discarded and preserving that which is valuable, while looking much more to the future than to the past (b) Be exemplary and be the best, not only in Spartan self-sacrifice (which comes easy to our young activists) but in everything you undertake including your studies and professional work. Do not be seen as the protectors of ‘raggers’ in the universities and take the forefront in stamping out the practice.  Just as the radical left faults the establishment for being vulnerable to external interventionism such as by the UN, because of domestic mal-governance, the radical left is vulnerable to social isolation and suppression by the establishment so long as it can be credibly depicted as backing a barbaric practice of ragging in its bastions of strength, the campuses.
  2. Left-on-left violence was a crucial factor in the outcomes of the 1980s. More fundamentally, the Sino-Soviet clash was probably the single most important factor in the collapse of global socialism. The reactionary forces tend to manipulate the contradictions between parent party and schismatic formation, engineering clashes, and eventually falsely labelling and suppressing both. Latin America teaches the paramount importance of non-sectarianism on the part of the left; of the crucial necessity of broad united fronts, blocs, platforms, co-ordinating committees and umbrella organisations, all which facilitate a pluralist left space.
  3. The national factor cannot be forgotten, especially when there is an authentic threat of imperialist hegemonic encirclement and interventionism, and even more dramatically, a surge in visceral anti-Sri Lankan hostility in Tamil Nadu. This does not mean that the national can be understood in narrow ethnic, religious, monolingual or mono-cultural terms. Such narrow conceptions must be fought against. A primary task of the Lankan Left is to envision a truly Lankan identity, which is also internationalist, and to build a multiethnic Lankan nation.  The national project must be combined with the democratic, the social, the regional, the continental and the global—and each of these dimensions, combined with the national. This is another lesson of the Latin American left, particularly of Brazil and Venezuela, whose project is ‘national-popular’ in the Gramscian sense.
  4. The last war, opposition to the LTTE and secessionism – including the overseas LTTE, the pro-separatist Diaspora and a pugnaciously hostile Tamil Nadu–will remain inescapably defining issues over the long term. The bridge to Sri Lanka’s largely Tamil North must pass through a dialogue and fusion with the Tamil Marxists. Wijeweera failed to do this for twenty years. Attempting a dialogue while skipping over this stage, mediation and counterparts, smacks of a lack of respect for the Tamil Left that stood up to the Tigers at terrible human cost; seems patronising towards the Tamils whom the Sinhala radical left is going to bring salvation to, and provides the reactionaries with an opening of accusing the radical left of being either a witting or unwitting proxy for an LTTE revival (a charge that may sound credible in the Sinhala heartland).
  5. Going beyond slogans (neoliberal capitalism, socialism) to actual explanation, the people must be given both critique and credible alternative proposals, at micro and macro levels, at enterprise, neighbourhood, local, provincial and national levels, which can demonstrably change things for the better. A better world is indeed possible, but how?

These are the lessons of Brazil’s Worker’s Party, El Salvador’s FMLN and Uruguay’s Frente Amplio; the open secrets of the successes of Lula and Dilma Rousset (Brazil’s President, a former urban guerrilla) and Jose Mujica ( Uruguay’s president, a former leader of the Tupamaros who was imprisoned for over a decade, including two at the bottom of a disused well).

It may be my pedagogical side coming to the fore, but I cannot but conclude by endorsing Slavoj Zizek’s half–joking reminder of Lenin’s almost obsessive injunction: “Learn, Learn, Learn”!