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The Jathika Chintanaya which emerged in the 1980s and matured in the 1990s continues to exert a considerable influence on mainstream politics and popular opinion here today. The movement’s contribution to historiography is just one of several, but I strongly believe it was the most significant. At its forefront was Gunadasa Amarasekara, the greatest writer to emerge from post-1956 Sri Lanka who is still with us, and Nalin de Silva, who as Amarasekara pointed out gave the movement “a solid philosophical foundation.”

The movement certainly did not emerge in or from a vacuum: it was shaped, nurtured, and fostered by the post-1977 social, political, cultural, and economic configuration, against the backdrop of a right wing, entrenched, and authoritarian State that unleashed what it euphemistically called “reforms” – or “letting the robber barons in” as president at the time proclaimed – and in one go crippled trade unions, emasculated the Left, and created a void that had been filled before by the Marxists.

The UNP came to power on a platform of “free market” neoliberal economic development. Led by J. R. Jayewardene, who as a student had been a supporter if not an admirer of the Communist Party, the new regime promulgated a new constitution which transformed the country from a parliamentary democracy to an executive presidency. Within two years, he had opened up the economy and privatised vast swathes of the public sector. Sri Lanka was the first country in South Asia to embark on neoliberal reforms, predating not just India but also Britain and the US; the New York Times in its obituary of Jayewardene described these policies as having “modernised [the] nation he led for 11 years.”

But the modernisation he oversaw came at a cost. Within three years, every other sector of the economy had been deregulated or privatised. The results were swift. Budget deficits soared, and so did inflation, which increased to as much as 30% or 40%, while food subsidies and import controls were clamped down or terminated.

The hardest hit was the working class. In 1980, responding to the high costs of living, fuelled by privatisations of, inter alia, the transport sector – which led to a rise in bus fares of 80% – around 1,024 trade unions comprising more than 400,000 State and private sector workers led demonstrations against the government’s policies. More so than Thatcher and Reagan would do in the face of similar union uprisings, Jayewardene’s government put down the strike and sacked 40,356 workers (various accounts put the number at 70,000, some others as high as 150,000). In a single stroke, the State fragmented the Left.

Throughout parts of the developing world where the rise of right-wing governments and the descent of the Left resulted in an intellectual void filled earlier by the Left, cultural-religious revivalism took the place of Marxist alternatives. Dependency theorists were well aware and wrote on how the ascent of neo-liberalism would be succeeded by revivalist programs led by what Samir Amin referred to as “religious antiquarians.”

Marxist movements, meanwhile, went the way of all flesh: either they mobilised a massive backlash against the government, as they did in much of Latin America including Nicaragua, or they transformed into radical establishment parties ostensibly opposed to the State, but in the long run dependent on funds from foreign aid agencies. (The spurt in NGO activity in 1980s Sri Lanka is discussed at length by Susantha Goonetilake in his book, Recolonisation.) Sections of the “Old Left”, as it was called, drifted into the “traditional” enemy, the UNP, and formed death squads (like PRRA) against the “New Left”, i.e. the JVP, which opposed the Indo-Lanka Accord that the UNP had signed and the Old Left supported.

Among university students in the mid-1980s the most dominant ideological formations were those of the Old Left and the JVP, which engaged in deadly confrontations with each other (leading to the killing of several student leaders, including Daya Pathirana), and the Jathika Chintanaya, which did not ally itself with either group but had, in its own special way, more in common with the JVP than the Old Left.

Many of the JVP’s student cadres emerged from the rural petty bourgeoisie, while a part of the Jathika Chintanaya in local universities – especially the science and engineering faculties of Colombo and Moratuwa – emerged from a suburban Sinhala middle class. By the decade’s end, the Old Left movement had passed away, and been cremated: many of its members drifted away in the 1990s to a radical left movement, an amorphous blend of post-neo-Marxism and postmodernism that, while not exerting a significant influence, nevertheless posed as a “marketable” alternative to Marxism. JVP student groups, crushed in the insurrection, were yet to re-emerge.

The relationship between the Sinhala middle bourgeoisie, which later became influential patrons of the Jathika Chintanaya, and J. R. Jayewardene’s neoliberal reforms was at best ambiguous. Newton Gunasinghe noted that they were more inclined towards the Sirimavo Bandaranaike economy since it was, as Dayan Jayatilleka has argued, “more advantageous vis-à-vis their ethnic minority economic competitors than the relatively level playing field of the Open Economy.”

I find these statements and remarks incomplete, if not superficial. Gunasinghe made his observation in a Lanka Guardian article dated November 1983, i.e. after the anti-Tamil riots, when calls were being made by militant nationalists against the Pettah (Tamil and Muslim) merchants. Jayatilleka, on the other hand, makes his sweeping generalisation quoting Gunasinghe in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where he sees in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration’s protectionist stance towards the economy an act of pandering to the same militant Sinhala Buddhist nationalists who opposed the open economy in the months following July 1983. As always, the problem is one of context.

The Sinhala middle bourgeoisie who had rallied against minority Pettah merchants had by the late 1980s changed. In Ranasinghe Premadasa they found, if not a saving grace, then a prophetic figure. They no longer opposed neoliberal reforms, because Premadasa had in his own way transmogrified it, sweetening the pill by his paradoxical incorporation of garment factories in the village and rapid deregulation plus privatisation in the city.

Both Jayatilleka and Tisaranee Gunasekera saw in the Premadasa regime an alternative model of development to both socialism and neo-liberalism, in which the task and challenge was “to find ways and means to fight poverty and all its attendant social ills within the broad framework of an open economic strategy.” (my emphasis).

Rhetoric aside, it was a populist variant of the neoliberal pill administered since 1977, and it appealed to sections of the middle bourgeoisie who had earlier yearned for a return to the closed economy. When Jayatilleka cites Newton Gunasinghe’s observations from post-1983, then leapfrogs to the present, he hence disregards not just differences in context but also the Premadasa factor that peddled the two worlds of neo-liberalism and populism; this straddling of “capitalism” and “populism” has continued ever since, one of its avatars being Chandrika Kumaratunga’s “neo-liberalism with a human face.”

So by the end of the 1980s you had three opposing formations, none of them fixed. You had the Old Left which merged with a neo-post-Marxist-postmodernist “left” ideology, you had the JVP which would recede after the second insurrection but would rebound in parliament and universities, and you had the Jathika Chintanaya outfits. Different milieus identified with different political formations, with sections of the petty bourgeoisie identifying itself with the Premadasa-ist UNP and the Jathika Chintanaya, and other sections clinging on to the post-Marxist formations and many others holding on to the JVP.

The Sinhala middle bourgeoisie à la Gunasinghe and Jayatilleka were in the meantime with either the Premadasa-ist UNP or the Jathika Chinatanaya. There was some alignment between the UNP and the Old Left, as the latter’s involvement in the second insurrection showed. The Jathika Chintanaya, on the other hand, showed some solidarity and indeed even sympathised with the JVP, but this did not bring about even a tacit consensus between these two in the way that their support for the Indo-Lanka Accord brought the UNP and the Old Left together. In that peculiar scheme of things, the Jathika Chintanaya – detached from other alliances, with the JVP out of the picture until its later entry to parliament – came to play an important though largely unacknowledged role.

An article by Gunadasa Amarasekara to The Island (“Lessons from Corona”, May 3) sheds light on what that role was, on what they as a movement believed in, and on how it was more in tune with the historical, cultural, and political realities of the country than either the Premadasa-ist UNP and Old Left and neo-post-Marxist-postmodernist (I call it “NPMPM”) movements, or the later JVP which, as the involvement in it of “radical” NPMPM artists and academics indicates, has given up its Marxist-populist roots in favour of a pseudo-Marxist lumpen ideology.

To put this very succinctly, in the 1980s much of the Left in Sri Lanka forwent on class struggles and issues of relative disadvantage, to focus almost exclusively on what critics have called “micro-politics”, such as ethnic identity and gender rights. One consequence of this was a virtual erasure of the class debate. Historical realities were also jettisoned by new left formations, and in ignoring those realities they marginalised class relations in favour of ethnic politics. The Jathika Chintanaya, no matter how crudely it set about its new task, provided a counter-narrative to these falsifications of history. It also attempted to come up with an alternative to the Premadasa model of development.

Gunadasa Amarasekara was in many ways more correct and prescient than most in highlighting the need for industry across the country. Though he underscored it from an ethnic viewpoint – seeing in the mobilisation of industry a means of correcting historical wrongs committed against the Sinhalese and Buddhists – the fact that he highlighted it, starting from his pamphlet Jathika Chintanaya saha Jathika Arthikaya, put him at the forefront of a struggle that had once been wielded by the Left. For its part the latter, having substituted identity politics and micro-politics for the more important dynamic of class and labour, reinterpreted and misinterpreted history.

One such misinterpretation, which continues to be made today despite evidence to the contrary, is that the British, by having destroyed so-called feudal modes of life, transformed Sri Lanka into a modern State. The fact that writers such as Victor Ivan (once card carrying members of the JVP) can repeat this oft-quoted myth, and without quoting a single statistic claim that by independence we had the best road network, the best railway service, and the best harbour in Asia, is hardly a point in favour of intellectuals who claim to stand for radical systemic change in the country, whether or not as “radical centrists.”

Another misconception of these new left-liberal formations is the role that “colonial capital” is supposed to have played in “developing” the economy. Once again, we have to turn to former JVP ideologues who argue that, by inundating the country with capital from abroad, Britain sped up the destruction of pre-capitalist modes of production and social relations. This is far from the truth, and it was not Gunadasa Amarasekara who pointed it out; Marx had done so too centuries ago, when he made his very crucial distinction between merchant capital and production capital.

Marx contended that capital accumulation, so pivotal for the destruction of archaic social relations and the flowering of capitalism and the eventual realisation of a socialist society, required the reinvestment of profits in industry. But Britain, as S. B. D. de Silva has noted in his classic work The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, inundated Sri Lanka with merchant capital. Not production capital. Without production capital, the country remained dependent, as it still does, on commodity markets: tea, rubber and coconut. And without local industrialisation, pre-capitalist cultural patterns, which the likes of Victor Ivan see as destroyed by the British, were never actually destroyed.

This bitter truth, consistently ignored by both the Right and the mainstream Left over here, is at the bottom of most of our troubles. From an ethnicised perspective at least, the only ideologue who pointed that out was Amarasekara; as he has contended, continued dependence on tea, garment factories, remittances from the Middle East, and tourism can only lead to further deterioration, even as economists still recommend tea exports and tourism as the way out. In that sense “new left formations” share the same myths indulged by pro-market and anti-left think-tanks; their inability to distinguish between forms of capital has become, today, their biggest, most palpable failure.

My point is that in the wake of the collapse of communism, new sources of funding found their way to Left parties in much of the Third World. Development economists and theorists who had, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, been warning of the failure of bourgeois elites in the Third World to delink their countries from the capitalist world order, implied that the legitimacy lost by the “new left formations” would be taken over by cultural revivalists. They did not note this as a positive development; in fact as Samir Amin wrote, it was certain to dismantle these countries further. But what else could be expected from the refusal of post-Marxism to offer a constructive critique of capitalism, globalisation, and neo-liberalism? Their refusal has been their undoing, even today.

These reflections do not end here. There are critiques to be made, problems to be solved, and lies to be revealed. The fact is that Jathika Chintanaya, in espousing the need for a jathika arthikaya, offered a diagnosis to a problem which the Left had ably taken on and tried to resolve before its coming apart in the late 1980s. Certainly, that does not preclude the Jathika Chintanaya from critique either. But a further examination of those lies and myths perpetuated by the “new left formations”, including the NPMPM, the JVP, remnants of the Old Left (like the NSSP), on the one hand, and right-wing think-tanks which for some reason ignore the need for industrialisation on the other, is needed before getting into that.