To say that the Sri Lankan leftist movement is on its last legs would be… generous, at best. Having all but abandoned all pretence of their once venerated Marxist/Trotskyist ideology, it is by no means a stretch that many hardcore leftists of old are now in bed with right-wing capitalist political parties and chauvinistic demagogues in a desperate and last-ditch bid for survival. With, perhaps, the arguable exception of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, more or less the entirety of the Left is now either dead or dying (whether or not the JVP is actually Marxist in its ideology, however, is a different matter altogether, which we shall get to in a bit). From the country’s first ever trade union, the Ceylon Printers Union established in 1893, the game changing strikes led by the likes of A. E. Goonasinhe in the 1920s and by the Youth Leagues in the ‘30s, and the subsequent formation of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in 1935 with the lofty goal of fighting for political independence while simultaneously agitating for a more egalitarian society, to its current state of you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours political expediency, the rise and fall of the Sri Lankan Left makes for some fascinating and eye-opening retrospection.
Any reading of the Sri Lankan Left would be incomplete without an understanding of its origins. In her highly insightful paper on the early years of the LSSP published in 1974, academic Kumari Jayawardena says the following:
“LSSP membership was open to anyone who affirmed that he was a socialist and agreed with the aims of the party. Since there was no strong nationalist movement led by the bourgeoisie, the need of the day was felt to be the establishment of a party which would lead the struggle for democratic rights and political independence. In addition, as there was no militant trade union movement which could express the demands of the proletariat, there was an urgent need for a radical political movement to give leadership and direction to the working people of the country. Those two objectives were fused when the LSSP was formed by the militant young nationalists and ‘socialists’ who led the struggles of the early thirties.”
The militant young nationalists referred to by Jayawardena here were affluent, British-educated Ceylonese youth influenced by the European Left and the teachings of Marx, Lenin, and Harold Laski. Among these radical freethinkers were such icons of the local left as N. M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, Robert Gunawardena, and Philip Gunawardena (who went on to form the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna with S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike).
The LSSP had long criticised Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as being the ‘alternate party of the capitalist class’ ‒ no doubt resentful of the latter for its hijacking of the anti-elitist cause in 1956. Eight years later, that same LSSP ate its words and joined a coalition with the SLFP, getting three ministries in the process (which later led to the expulsion of the LSSP from the Fourth International). Thus began the end of the once respectable and arguably formidable Sri Lankan left.
SL Left Vs. Global Left
As Social Scientists’ Association (SSA) researcher and co-editor of Pathways of the Left in Sri Lanka B. Skanthakumar puts it, in contrast to the more violent and revolutionary leftist movements found elsewhere in the South Asian region, the Left in Sri Lanka has always been broader and more diverse (heterogenous) than the identities and ideologies of the Left parties.
“The ‘Left’ in Sri Lanka has historically been associated with the following ideas: anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism; state intervention in economic and social policy; suspicion of the market and private capital; redistribution of income and wealth from the rich to other social classes; promoting rights and interests of the working class and poor peasantry; support for free education, free health, and controls on prices of essential foods and other goods; increasing the weight and breadth of the public sector including through nationalisation e.g. essential services (e.g. transport, ports), strategic industries (e.g. oil and gas), plantations (tea, rubber, coconut) etc.,” Skanthakumar tells Roar.
The global Left, he says, has always been more diverse than its Sri Lankan counterpart. At its infancy, the Sri Lankan Left was largely influenced by the Russian Revolution. The global Left, on the other hand, in the past and present, has a range of ideologies: from social democracy, to anarchism, to eco-socialism which, according to Skanthakumar, have had little or no organised presence in Sri Lanka.
“Both the Sri Lankan and global Left have been battered since the 1970s. Virtually everywhere, the Left is a marginal political force. Its main parliamentary or electoral standard-bearers (social democracy and/or the Communist Party) have transformed or dissolved themselves and become indistinguishable from the centre-right. However, there are exceptions and unique experiences in the US (Bernie Sanders’ campaign), Britain (Jeremy Corbyn), Spain (Podemos), Portugal (Left Bloc), Venezuela (Chavez), Bolivia (Evo Morales), Tunisia (trade unions), etc. etc,” says Skanthakumar.
Is The Left Dead?
That the Left is no longer what it was is an understatement. Having forgotten most of its core values, the Sri Lankan Left has dwindled in number and presence, reduced to issuing the occasional condemnation or organising half-hearted protests.
Skanthakumar is less kind in his words. The Sri Lankan Left, he says, is fossilised.
“It has not developed its ideas, its organisational forms and culture, its assimilation of other emancipatory (or potentially emancipatory) ideologies and movements. Its evolution has been degenerative ‒ to surrender core principles and convictions in its adaptation to ethnic nationalism (Sinhala and Tamil) and to capitalism (in its neoliberal phase or form). This is in contrast to the most dynamic or interesting parts of the global Left which embraced feminism, ecology, indigenous and racial justice,” he says.
“Above all, whereas once the Left in Sri Lanka were the best advocates for democracy and greater democratisation of state and society, now its ideas are at best limited to procedural democracy with no agenda for attacking power and privilege in the home, the community, the workplace or the school. It has become a conservative movement and in its own way obstructive to radical change,” he adds.
Historically, how has the Sri Lankan Left changed its position on various issues such as socioeconomic disparities, the management of state owned enterprises, and the ethnic conflict over the decades? Is it even fair to put all major Left-leaning parties into one neat box labelled ‘the Left’, given their vast differences?
According to Skanthakumar, the Sri Lankan Left has not been inflexible in abandoning what are commonly regarded as core socialist values. No Left parliamentary party, he says, has a contemporary agenda for structural transformation of the state and the economy, for the purpose of transferring power and wealth from the top to the bottom.
“When in opposition, the Left parties denounce privatisation but when in government, they have meekly fallen in line. Whereas in the 1930s and 1940s, the Left were the staunchest defenders of the rights of minority communities (in the struggles against decitizenisation, disenfranchisement, Sinhala Only, centralisation of state power), by the late 1950s they began retreating from positions of principle to positions of pragmatism (at best) or rank racism (at worst),” opines Skanthakumar.
He attributes this to the rise of the SLFP.
“Bandaranaike’s success in mobilising social forces in Sinhala society once sympathetic to the Left, caught the Left parties off-guard. The common enemy (United National Party) provided the glue to stick the Left to the SLFP. Therefore it was “coalition politics” (adaptation of the socialist Left to the populist SLFP), that drove the Left to give up its “ideals” (as some within those parties derisively said) for the opportunity to taste the fruits of state power (in government),” he says.
Enemy Of My Enemy
The SLFP, since its inception, was not hostile to capitalism per se, but only to those capitalists who were traditional UNP supporters. The SLFP, says Skanthakumar, upheld Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, which was perceived by its sympathisers as a reaction to centuries of colonial discrimination, as well as the marginalisation of the ethno religious majority by minorities, particularly in the course of capitalist development in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Left in coalition with the SLFP (1964, 1970-75, 1994-2000, 2002-2005, 2006-2014) took its cue from the SLFP.
“The points of convergence were prima facie: opposition to the UNP (seen as the party par excellence of big capital and imperialist interests); opposition to pro-Western foreign policy (especially the United States); opposition to privatisation or the rolling back of the State in the economy; pro-poor social and economic policies. However, by 1994 the SLFP was overtly pro-market, pro-capital, pro-Western. Still, the Left stubbornly clung on to its leader’s sari pota (as before her mother’s),” says Skanthakumar.
“The Left was and is infatuated by the state. It thinks that the state is the agent of social transformation in Sri Lanka; whereas in classical Marxism it is the working class or the dominated classes that are the revolutionary subject,” he adds.
Vasu And Bahu
Barring the JVP, most of what’s left of the Left today has divided its loyalties between the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP and their erstwhile capitalist enemies in the UNP. Strong [former] leftists like D. E. W. Gunasekara and vociferously vocal advocates of reconciliation like Vasudewa Nanayakkara now sit side by side with known hawks. On the other side of the coin, there is the likes of Vickramabahu Karunaratne, who has openly been flirting with the UNP for years.
When asked to comment on this, Skanthakumar says: “I think the turn(s) made by the former comrades-in-arms, are their own reactions to the dismal situation of the Left and Labour movement. The dreams of their youth were dashed by the decline and decomposition of traditional agencies for social change and their impending demise. How to make sense or justify the sacrifices they made and the path they took, at the end of one’s life? No different to other sections of the Left, they looked for shortcuts to power; and to postpone (indefinitely?) their aspiration for socialism for short-term objectives (resisting ‘neo-liberalism’ and ‘imperialism’ via Mahinda, in Vasu’s case; resisting ‘fascism’ and ‘Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism’ via Ranil, in Bahu’s instance). Both are mistaken in my view. Both have made the wrong choices. Both have miseducated their followers. Both have discredited anything that was once admirable about their past political record.”
The Modern JVP
For most Sri Lankans, the most recognisable leftist/”Marxist” party is the JVP, and with good reason. Having successfully and convincingly distanced itself from its violent past, the modern JVP ‒ particularly under the leadership of Anura Kumara Dissanayake ‒ has truly reinvented and revitalised itself as the voice of reason in the Sri Lankan polity.
Skanthakumar, however, is cautious in his admiration of the party and questions the authenticity of its supposedly leftist ideology.
“The JVP is the largest parliamentary party of the Left. The largest organisation of the Left. The party which continues to adorn itself with historic symbols of the Left movement from the red flag, to portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The party still unashamed of its two attempts to seize power through conspiracy (’71) and terror (’87-’89). The party of the Left most eager to cloak itself in Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Its critics on the Left vehemently disagree that it qualifies to be described as Left at all. But this is disingenuous. All Left parties in Sri Lanka have adapted in their own ways to nationalism (the Southern parties to Sinhala nationalism; the Northern parties to Tamil nationalism),” he says.
How fair is this statement, though, given the JVP leader’s rhetoric of inclusivity and reconciliation of late? In his public speeches in the run up to the presidential polls in January, for example, Anura Kumara Dissanayake waxed eloquent on the injustices faced by our brothers and sisters in the North and East and the importance of reconciliation.
Responds Skanthakumar: “Sure. The AKD phase of the JVP is its most agreeable since 1989. That does not make it anti-Sinhala nationalist, leave alone Marxist. I was/am thinking of the JVP historically including the Somawansa Amarasinghe phase. Remember that Wimal Weerawansa comes from this tradition. It is simply that he dropped all pretence of socialism for nationalism, and substituted Rajapaksa for Wijeweera.”
Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, he says, is normalised in Sri Lankan politics and civil society ‒ an extreme manifestation of which is the BBS. But this is only part of the spectrum which includes the ‘liberal’ UNP and the advocates for ‘reconciliation’ in media, public life etc. The JVP, points out Skanthakumar, supported Mahinda’s war to the bitter end. The JVP opposes power sharing and federalism and supports the foremost status of Buddhism (or at least does not demand secularism). The JVP even partakes in Buddhist rituals and ceremonies including visits to the Mahanayakes, he says.
“In the Sri Lankan context, until the JVP recognises the nature of the Tamil national question; breaks from the Southern political consensus on the identification between the Sri Lankan State and Sinhala Buddhism, and adopts class-based rather than populist politics; it is not a Marxist party in my opinion. But, it is fair to call it ‘Left’ or ‘Left-Nationalist’ as I prefer,” says Skanthakumar.
“Today the JVP positions itself as the best fighter against corruption. All talk of socialism is gone. No fiery demands are made for expropriation of the property of the rich. Instead, the model is now ‘market socialism’ a la China. And the political rhetoric is designed to warm the cockles of the urban and rural middle class. The problem is that its new admirers want it to have parliamentary representation (to be the conscience of the Yahapalanaya regime), but have no inclination to vote it into government. At some point the limits of the current strategy will be evident. What this will mean for the JVP is up for debate, but doesn’t look promising for anyone interested in renewal of the Left,” he adds.
The Tamil Left
Tamil leftists in the past have on numerous occasions been supportive of their comrades in the south against the struggle against the British empire, particularly in the 1920s and ‘30s onwards. However, it was never really a strong movement in the way that the Sinhala Left was.
Skanthakumar concurs. “The economic, social, and cultural nature of Northern (and Eastern) Tamil society was not fertile ground for the Left. The pace and manner in which the Left took up the question of Tamil national oppression; and its opposition to federalism; also diminished its reputation within Tamil society. Then came two other blows: the disorientating global developments where the old reference points just disappeared (Soviet Union, China under Mao, transition to capitalism elsewhere, the discarding of leftist ideas by former anti-colonial and anti-imperialist leaders and movements, etc.). And of course, the terror and repression of the LTTE, which killed, imprisoned, and drove into exile any critics of its murderous politics,” he explains.
He believes there are more unorganised individual leftists in the Tamil diaspora than there are within Sri Lanka.
“The diaspora Left is itself without influence and is ageing, divided, and without a clear line of march. This is not surprising in its circumstances. Many exhibit their leftism through literature and the arts as cultural activists, in small circulation literary magazines, blogs and websites. A handful of first and a small number of second generation Tamils have joined parties of the social democratic and socialist Left in western countries, but are confused about their orientation towards Tamil nationalism (which is the dominant ideology in their ethnic community),” he says.
An interesting development in the Tamil Left, says Skanthakumar, is the alliance between a former Maoist group (most of whose members are in the diaspora) with the growing Frontline Socialist (Peratugami Samajawadi Party).
“They are active on Facebook in solidarity actions with the FSP (e.g. Kumar Gunaratnam campaign). Unfortunately, there is no indication that the FSP is developing a more concrete appreciation of the Tamil national question in return. The FSP is still abstract and propagandistic and wary of being labelled as pro-separatist by the JVP,” he says.
“I don’t see any signs of interest in the Left among Tamil youth (in general). Why should they be, anymore than Sinhala and Muslim youth? The parochialism of Tamil politics in general, its inability to solidarise with progressive social struggles in the South, its monolingual exile from the world around it, don’t offer any prospect for Tamil youth to even be inspired and learn from secular and progressive movements among Kashmiris, Palestinians, and Kurds. The weakness of the Left (CPI, CPM, CP-ML in Tamil Nadu and its caving into Tamil nationalism (including LTTE and Tamil separatism), makes it indistinguishable from the Dravidian parties,” he adds.
It bears repeating that the Sri Lankan Left is breathing its last. Its old proponents have either abandoned their cause or are themselves too frail both physically and politically to make any real difference. The modern incarnation of the Left – be it the JVP, the FSP or remnants of the Nawa Sama Samaja Party – are still marginal and the voting public, it seems, are content with having them on the sidelines, particularly in the case of the JVP, giving them just enough power and presence to keep the sitting government in check. In this context, is there any hope left for the Left?
Skanthakumar, who believes that the death of the Left is protracted and messy and not swift and clean as some might believe, is not too hopeful.
“The short to medium term prognosis is bleak. In the absence of revived social movements of the exploited and oppressed, how can the Left hope to renew itself, to rebuild its organisations, to recover its confidence, to rediscover the emancipatory promise of its ideas? The Left as we know it probably has no future,” he says darkly.
He hastens to add, however: “Capitalism by virtue of its inability to offer prosperity and freedom to the majority creates its own opposition. How that opposition describes and sees itself, only time will tell. The ‘Left’ has to be on the side of the oppressed and the exploited everywhere, no matter who they are and no matter who the oppressor is. That categorical imperative is the only compass we have. History has a way of surprising us.”