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‘Learn, learn, learn’: Lessons for the Left in Lanka

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Sarath Muttetuwegama

By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

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 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 Ranawaka.

Vijaya Kumaratunga

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 Ranawaka’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. The story was the same in Cambodia and Peru.

It is a different century now, and one hopes the lessons have been learnt. I leave today’s left 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. 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 importantly, 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 and platforms.

3. The national factor cannot be forgotten, especially when there is an authentic threat of imperialist hegemonic encirclement and interventionism. 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 and the pro-separatist Diaspora—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.

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”!

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9 Comments

  1. The socialist doctrine, free of creed, race and religon would be an attractive alternative to unite the poor, working and middle class if not for the tendency towards violence and chaos.
    The leaders must resist the impulse to deviate from principles just to gain temporary popular support or political and financial advantage. Such actions undermine the credibility of such movements. A saner and more principled approach would gain the respect of the masses.

  2. The LEFTISTS Leaders in Sri Lanka hail from the land owning class. Though they had their education in English in Christian schools and furthered their studies in the UK universities, their class was not as privileged as Bandaranayakes, Senanayakes, Jayawardenes, Wijewardhanas, Ponnambalams, etc., etc., with the British Government. There was absolutely no room for this class. As a result of this discrimination the leaders of the Left N.M.Perera and Vitharane-Ruwanwella, Gunewardhanas- Awissawella, Panadura, Kesbawa, Homagama, Nanayakkaras – Eheliyagoda, Kamburpitiya, Colvin.R.de Silva -Balapitiya, Dodangoda Pathirana duo -Galle, Gunesekeras – Galle, Haraduwa, Matara, Muttetugama – Kalawana, Wickremasinghe -Akuressa, Keunemen Moulana duo -Colombo. Interestingly most pf these villages are from Western, Southern, Sabaragamuwa provinces. They dominated the blind working class of the Port, Private Enterprises including …CPC that was nationalized in 1960…..Nationalization of transport etc…all these institutions were headed by them…the vote sent them to the Parliament periodically for absolutely doing nothing for the poor or to remove the Class barrier. In 1956 the bogus representation of the masses the ASSES by Bandaranayakes paved the way for this lost leftist clan…they got in to the Parliament ….in 1971 again the Asses voted them into the Parliament and that was the end of them….

    Their hypocrisy was evident in 1971 when the Govt they represented began to suppress the poor underprivileged society. The bloody leftists sided with the Govt headed by the English speaking elite of the Country…they supported the massacre. Now why that had to happen ? Could such a massacre have taken place if the LEFTISTS actually represented the entire Country.? that was the end of the left….

    ONLY WIJEWEERA was able to represent the underprivileged Society in the ENTIRE COUNTRY for the first time…he was able to achieve this single handedly as the Old left shits infact were not representing the Underpriviledeged as claimed since 1920 but the aid of elite. The bogus left became enemies of the JVP since the defeat of 1977 was aiming to crush the JVP….supported the Capitalist JRJ Govt , contradicting their socialist ideology, to crush JVP in 1983 …the JVP was not given the opportunity to breath…we all know the gun culture since1986 ..even Leftist Comrade VASU had a assassination squad with CATS…..that was our LEFT…..

    Vijaya was a Revolutionary leader respected by the entire Country…..Middle class, Underpriviledeged Sinhalese, Tamils & Muslims …the only human being that could have changed the Political culture of Sri Lanka with Chandrika factor….as such he earned the wrath of JVP and the capitalist SLFP & UNP……he was assassinated….in 1987 -1989 we all witnessed the bloody carnage of the Country supported by the LEFT…..

    The old farts supported CHANDRIKA led SLFP…and now MAHINDA led SLFP…the last 20 years it was the OLD LEFT that supported the strengthening of the CURSE, the Executive Presidential System, of the Country their popular belief…..there is even a book written by the late Dr. N.M.Perera on this subject..MOCKERY OF THE PRESENT CONSTITUTION AND THE PARLIAMENT DEMOCRACY OF SRI LANKA..it was these indecent FARTS in 2009 supported the Govt to brutally crush the Tamil grievances and went beyond JRJ shamelessly supporting the 18th amendment in 2010 paving the Way for BLOODY DICTATORSHIP and another booldshed in the Country.

    The present position of the country is due to the hypocrisy of the old LEFTISTS who are close to the grave now ….and perhaps the fools will be happy over what they have brought upon the future of this country …….they were responsible for all the miseries of the Country then…….and now…..so Dr Jayatilleke no point in requesting the Old Farts to Learn……when they have not learned from the historical blunders…..

    The Govt will continue to suppress any move by a new political party to represent the masses …..

  3. very fine article but wonder how Wimal and Champika former leftists, can, now become Rightists. I leave it you DBSJ to furthr explain

    Why me?……..DBSJ

  4. Learn Learn nd Learn….it is true but to learn one must have a capcity and humility to know that ne needs to know…Look at Sri Lanka and its political henchmen…they they believe they need to learn….(we had a lessons learnt committee) but confirmed to a committee but the lessons are not learnt…when do we learn…I admire the Latin
    American lessons applied in the article…may I ask Dayan…where does this didactical article leading us as a nation…to the left…or to the right ???

  5. Though there were periods of declinations or stagnations in the history of mankind, humanity should evolve & will,communist ideas had been tried out & experimented in many countries,& after many years slowly it started to unravel,one should go deeper into the subject & analyse to find out why it failed,if one is intelligent one should not swallow every word as the gospel truth that Karl Marx or Lenin preached, certainly there were positive aspects in these theories,one should inquire why the people of those communist bloc countries get fed up with communism,& during the cold war why did east Germans try to defect to west Germany risking their lives of being shot at or by crossing mine fields in the process (My German teacher took the risk of running to cross the east German border while bullets shot by east German guards were whizzing past her head) ,why did Cubans take risks of trying to cross the shark infested ocean in inflated rubber tubes to reach the USA side,even today we hear of starving north Koreans taking enormous risks to defect,but it didn’t happen vice-versa, even the theoretician Mr.Kumar Gunaratnam, of the newly formed Frontline Socialist Party – FSP,instead of going to Cuba,or North Korea,migrated to a renowned capitalist country Australia from where he gives counselling on the telephone on the evil nature of capitalism & its dangers & the importance of overthrowing the democratically elected Srilankan government,to the FSP working committee,all the while enjoying the freedom & comforts offered by the democratically elected capitalist Australian government,I have spoken to many people from the former communist bloc countries & learnt much,democracy offers the people to choose a government & kick them out if they dont like them,& the freedom to create new ideas innovations machines,poetry essays paintings etc…without any political hindrance, on the other hand there are negative aspects of Capitalism too, in the united states there is a big gap between the poor & the rich, if you are poor & lazy it would be hell there, but if you are hard working even if you are poor,you have a chance of coming up in life,I am not totally against socialism or capitalism,one should amalgamate the best ideas of the two.

  6. Учиться, учиться и учиться (learn , learn and learn) was a popular phrase of V. I. Lenin. Now it is well known fact that Lenin was natured and financed by France and Germany. In the height of First World War, Germany was going to loose Baltic States in the fight with Russia and it sent Lenin to Russia to create internal troubles to Tsar’s empire as it would weaken military power against Germany. The Great Russian writer Dostoevsky (in his novel “the devils”) wrote some fifty years before the revolution that the real enemy of Russia was Jews and they would make conspiracies and provoke people against each other to destroy the stability. As he said, all the key players of October revolution were Jews. (Lenin, Trotsky ect.) Do not forget to ask how much they suffered under the red flag when you see a Russian citizen next time. They lived in a country where people were sent to prison if they dropped a photo of Stalin by chance while marching in the parade. Children were made to bow down to Lenin’s photo and to sing communistic songs. Thousands of intellectuals were deported out of the country or to reprisal camps in Siberia. Even Jean Paul Sartre of your adopted country severely criticized soviet regime for declining its concepts from Marxism. Several millions of soviet citizens died in labor camps under Stalin’s regime. Our communist leaders had a fun time having all perks and family tours in Russia and other socialist countries with the money provided to them through these sufferings. How many of those so-called leftist intellectuals have read Marx’s ‘Das Capital’ is known only to stars above us. Some of old communists still remember the happiest party times they had at the expenses of soviet people.
    Soviet regime paid no concern to people’s day today needs and concentrated only on its military mighty and socialistic propaganda machine. For example, they produced only 3 types of soaps. One for skin, one for dishes and other for clothes. Our Lankan heros used to have bath with different aromatic soap bought with the money given to them for propaganda works.
    From time to time you enjoy babbling something on leftism, communism or Latin America. But what exact contribution you have made to the so-called ‘suppressed community’? Marx having lost 4 out of 7 children due to hunger, spent 40 years in hiding to finish his main theoretical work ‘Das capital’ and at the same time, we have people like you who write long articles residing in bourgeoisie with all perks provided at the expenses of sri lanken tax payers. You talk much about Latin Americas leftism but can you tell us why on earth Bolivian farmers helped CIA to capture Che Guevara if they considered Che as their saviour. Marx never called on peasants of feudalist countries to make revolutions. He talked of developed capitalistic countries and their unavoidable proletarian dictorship which should inevitably turn into a classless society. When mature economies turn pro-proletarians they are to save other underdeveloped countries. How can you apply Marxist theories to Countries like ours, which cannot manufacture even a push-bicycle? Has anyone of so-called lankan leftists has expressed their views in regard to religion? What would happen to all upasakas and religious people if they came to power? Did anyone of them explain the position of Marxism on religion? Without any revolutionary mindset late Lasantha (to whom I respect very much) was courageous enough to question as to why we holiday when the moon becomes full.
    With all respect to Marx and Engels, what I do not understand is why they didn’t pay any attention to the fact that people are born with different genetic dispositions, intellects, moral values etc. Their slogan was ‘from everybody as much as they can, to everybody as much as they need’. When and where we can witness such a society is anybody’s guess. If the dialectics of nature continues unstoppably, what should come after communism? Why it should be the final stage of human development? When soviet people were kept locked, they learnt Marxism / Leninism but now they read Brihat Parashara Hora Shastra of Maharish Parashara which came to light some five thousand years ago. Vladimir Putin having born and brought up in soviet era now prefers getting consulted by Vedic astrologers like K. N. Rao. Why do some children die in early childhood, much different children born to same parents one with down syndrome and other with great talents, some people survive in accidents, some politicians become head of states while others with much more capabilities just keep on dreaming. You can find some thousands of different combinations of planets, rashis, nakshastras, yogas in your Vedic birth chart as to why these things happened to us. But for Marx, it was merely idealism which helps bourgeoisie to further exploit proletariat by saying you are poor because you have done bad karma. You have no choice left other than praying to god …ect. That is why Marx said: ‘religion is the heart of heartless world’. We need intellectuals who can further analyze these concepts rather than pushing us backward. Instead we find the latest revolutionist called ‘Kumara MAHATTAYA’ coming forward to ruin the class struggle of Banda and MAHATTAYA!!! Absurd no?

  7. An ideologue that is doing his best to protect the Right-wing regime of Rajapakse is at the same time trying to advice the progressive Left! What a ridiculous attempt!

    The FSP leaders have proven that they are well learnt the lessons of history than old and outdated Left-wingers like DJ who is still imprisoned within the Westphalia nation state framework. DJ’s current analyses are so poor that they seems as to replicate what Wimal Weerawansa is saying in Sinhala, though in an academic language. But, against that, the FSP has correctly understood that the current regime of Rajpakse is the most reactionary regime that was produced by postcolonial Sri Lankan history, given that this regime champions simultaneously neo-liberal economic reforms, Sinhalese ethno chauvinism, constitutionalist authoritarianism and all the related peripheral capitalist tendencies.

    So, it’s very clear that the political analyses of DJ have gone completely wrong, if they were those analyses that led him to support this reactionary and ultra right-wing regime. Dear ambassador, please be reminded that the young leftists in this country do not need pseudo advices from people like you.
    .

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