Circular firing squad of minority politics
The bane of this country has been ethnicity and religion based politics. It first began among the ‘Ceylon’ Tamils in the north and east with the rise of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi which put the idea of an exclusive Tamil state into the minds of the people of those areas. The rise of communal politics in the north and east was followed by the transmogrification of trade unions among up-country Tamils into political parties. The final addition to the mix was the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress which came to the fore in 1987 on the charge that the UNP government of the day had sold the eastern province Muslims down the river by agreeing to “temporarily” merge the northern and eastern provinces, thus placing the Muslims living in those areas under Tamil overlordship.
Because the senior-most communal political party in the country was the ITAK, all other minority political parties defer to it. In fact, it’s the ITAK which still sets the benchmark for what constitutes minority rights and aspirations. If a political party makes noises that are sympathetic to the political demands of the ITAK led Tamil National Alliance, that is seen as being minority friendly even by the Muslims and Up-country Tamils. Yet in actual fact, the TNA’s demands are diametrically opposed to the interests of the Muslims as well as the Upcountry Tamils. This became glaringly obvious after 2015 when the UNP, JVP, the TNA, the SLMC, the ACMC and the Upcountry Tamil political parties all got together and elected a President of their choice who through the manipulation of the SLFP, was able to provide that government with a two thirds majority.
One of the things that the yahapalana government formed in this manner did, was to formulate a new constitution to satisfy the political demands of the Tamil National Alliance. As could be expected, the new constitution had provisions that would shift all real power from the central government to the provincial councils. Everything ranging from industries, agriculture, education, health care, law and order, land, and the formation of policies on all those matters were to be transferred from the centre to the provinces.
All powerful provincial
If that constitution had been passed, there would have been no point in contesting for the presidency or parliament as all power would have been transferred to autonomous provincial governments. (You have to read that draft constitution in order to come to an understanding of the extent of devolution envisaged – any attempt to describe it in a few words will always be inadequate.) That constitution also had provisions which would make it impossible to reverse the process of devolution once that constitution had been passed into law. All that had been neatly tied up with a provision that would allow the merger of the northern and eastern provinces – a cornerstone ITAK/TNA demand. The merger of the northern and eastern provinces would have given the Tamils of those areas – the so called Ceylon Tamils – a unitary state whereas all other ethnic groups in the country including the Sinhalese, Muslims and Up-country Tamils would have to make do with a federal state. The arrangement envisaged in that constitution would have given the ‘Ceylon’ Tamils untrammeled control over the entire north and east and the Sinhalese would have had untrammeled control over the remaining seven autonomous units.
The Muslims and Up-country Tamils would not have control over anything anywhere. Since the centre was powerless there was no use in having influence at the centre. What counted was the clout each community would be able to wield within each autonomous provincial unit. The merger of the east with the north would have deprived the Muslims of the two Muslim majority districts in the country – the Digamadulla and Trincomalee districts. In the rest of the country the Muslims will be scattered among the other eight provinces without having a significant share of power in any of them. Even though the Up-country Tamils are by definition concentrated in the Upcountry areas, their people will be scattered among three or four provinces without being able to make a mark anywhere – except perhaps to a limited extent in the Central province which has the largest concentration of Upcountry Tamils.
As of now, the Muslim and Upcountry Tamil political parties have to deal only with one central government. If the country is broken up into nine or eight autonomous provincial units, each provincial unit will need to have its own Muslim and Upcountry Tamil leaderships. Hakeem is from the Central Province, so the Eastern Muslims will have to be under someone else. One or two leaders sitting in parliament will not be able to give leadership to Muslims all over the country as they do at present. Each province will almost be an independent country in everything except the name. When power is devolved, leadership has to be devolved along with it.
If Digambaram chooses to remain in the Nuwara Eliya district, someone else will have to lead the Upcountry Tamils in the Uva province. Hakeem will have the same problem if he chooses to remain in Kandy. The Muslim leader of the Southern province will have no reason to take orders from Hakeem because within his province, he will be Hakeem’s equal in the provincial legislature. Furthermore, the communal leaders in each province will have to negotiate separately with their provincial governments. The Southern provincial government for example will have no reason to take any notice of a Muslim legislator or minister in the Central Province.
The only communal outfit that will not have this problem of being splintered by devolution will be the TNA which will have its unitary state in the north and east. R.Sampanthan sitting in Trincomalee will be able to lead the Tamils in Jaffna and the Vanni as well as in the Batticaloa and Ampara districts because all those areas will come under one provincial government.
The only minority community leadership that has any interest in the devolution of power is the TNA and its offshoots in the north. The Muslim and Upcountry Tamil leaderships seek a place for themselves in the central government. Their bargaining power will disappear if the TNA inspired constitution is passed. As a result we have never heard any Up-country Tamil or Muslim leader ever expressing support for the TNA inspired constitution. It’s not only due to Sinhala opposition that the TNA inspired constitution was never passed, it’s due to the indifference or passive resistance of the Upcountry Tamil and Muslim leaderships. This is why the government of 2015 which was formed by the vast majority of the minority voters combined with a significant minority of Sinhala voters and had a two thirds majority in parliament never passed that constitution into law.
Some people that this writer spoke to think the TNA constitution was not passed because Ranil Wickremesinghe was not interested in pushing for it. If Ranil Wickremesinghe had pushed for it, he too would have been committing political hara kiri because the Up-country Tamil and Muslim leaderships would never have agreed to a constitution that would have turned them into political nonentities in eight separate autonomous provinces. This glaring reality that the interests and aspirations of the northern Tamil lobby are diametrically opposed to the interests of other minority communities like the Muslims and Up-country Tamils is the elephant in the room that nobody seems to be willing to talk about. Everybody, the Sinhalese, the Up-country Tamils and Muslims fall over one another to pay pooja to the demands of the TNA, because they need the TNA’s votes for their political power projects. But after they get the votes of the Tamils of the north and east, they have no further use for the TNA until the next election comes along and the TNA’s persistent demands for the devolution of power become an inconvenience and an embarrassment as we saw happening in the case of the yahapalana government.
When Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe introduced the TNA inspired draft constitution in Parliament in early 2019, he basically disowned it saying that it was not his draft, nor that of the UNP or the yahapalana government but a draft prepared by a panel of experts. If the TNA had 16 seats in Parliament the Muslims and Up-country Tamil political parties together had the same or even more. Thus the Tamils of the north and east would have become like the minority voters in the USA who are stimulated and titillated at election time to vote for a certain political party; and after the election, they are forgotten till the next election. Sumanthiran will be shuffling around till he is Sampanthan’s age, touting his draft constitution which does not have a snowflake’s chance in hell of being passed into law.
Given the demographics of the country where the largest concentration of Muslims lives in the eastern province and 52% of all Tamils (including all Up-country Tamils) permanently live outside the north and east, means that the TNA’s political project will always remain a pipe dream. The demands of one minority community stymied by the interests of other minority communities – the typical circular firing squad. The only feasible arrangement in this country is the unitary state with political parties sharing power at the centre. For decades, the ITAK made it a policy to label anyone cooperating with the Colombo government as traitors. If they start cooperating with a political party at the centre like the short lived experiment from 1965 to 1968 under Dudley Senanayake, they too may be rejected as traitors by the people of the north.
There will be other Tamil groups like the party led by C.V.Wigneswaran which will be only too happy to replace the ITAK as the main political force in the north and east. The Upcountry Tamil political parties and the Muslim political parties do not talk about devolution or any kind of constitutional reform for that matter. It’s only the northern Tamil lobby that is obsessed with the devolution of power – a condition which goes back more than six decades into the 1950s. There is a need for the TNA and the entire northern Tamil lobby to pause a little and take stock of things. But politics does not always follow a rational path. The release of the TNA’s latest manifesto for this parliamentary election shows that they are still treading the same old path which leads nowhere.
Northern Tamils vs. other minorities
Today there is little point in the TNA continuing to demand further devolution of power because the Upcountry Tamils and Muslims have shown that they are not willing to commit political suicide so that the northern Tamils can get what they want. When it comes to minority politics, it’s every community for itself and may the devil take the hindmost. Prabhakaran was in fact right. There’s only one way for the northern Tamil lobby to get what they want in Sri Lanka and that is to get it by the force of arms. There isn’t a snowflake’s chance in hell of getting it through negotiations and political manoeuvres because of the opposition coming from other minority groups.
The TNA is demanding a unitary Tamil state for themselves while dishing out federalism to everyone else. None of those for whom federalism is being proposed by the TNA is keen to have a federal form of government. Neither are they keen to let the TNA have the Tamil unitary state they desire because the Muslims consider a good part of that Ceylon Tamil homeland to be their areas of habitation. The TNA’s politics needs a reset, but how can there be a reset when they don’t seem to be aware that a problem exists? To be sure, the circular firing squad nature of minority community communal politics became apparent in this country in the form that we now see it, only after 2015. But that experience should be enough to show that change is necessary. You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result at every repetition.
Leaving aside the Sinhalese who also have a say in all this, there is no way that the TNA’s ambitions are going to be compatible with those of the Muslim political parties and the Up-country Tamil political parties. One of the quirks of northern Tamil politics is that for the past sixty years and more, they have been touting devolution of power for the whole country just so that they can get their unitary ‘Ceylon’ Tamil state in the north and east of the country. The powers that they require for the Tamil state are the same powers that they recommend for other provinces outside the north and east. This is essentially the format in which the northern Tamil demand for an autonomous state has been presented to the people of Sri Lanka ever since the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact of the 1950s. The reason for pushing for devolution for the whole country may be to make the northern Tamil demand for a unitary ‘Ceylon’ Tamil state look less like the exclusivism and separatism that it actually is. However, no other community wants the devolution that the TNA lobby is trying to force on them.
We have now reached a period comparable to 1948 when G.G.Ponnambalam realized that he will have to change tack if he was to keep the Ceylon Tamils in the mainstream in independent Ceylon. To his credit, it must be said that he was able to make the transition from making communal demands during the last few years of British rule, to participating in the government of an independent Ceylon. The question now is, does the TNA have the ability to change course in that manner? Despite the visibility of other minority communities in this country, most international players involved in Sri Lanka’s ethnic politics tend to give priority to the northern Tamil lobby and takes the other minority communities for granted. They assume that somehow, what the TNA wants for the Ceylon Tamils is compatible with what the Muslims and Up-country Tamils want for their communities.
This is obviously a carry forward from the war era, when only the LTTE counted in peace negotiations and the Muslims and Up-country Tamils counted for nothing. Now however the war is over and everyone has only the ballot as a weapon and the playing field between the northern Tamils and the other minority communities in this country have been levelled. It’s certainly to be hoped that these realities are taken into account and a reset takes place in minority politics in this country at least after the 2020 parliamentary election.
The need for an alternative
By Uditha Devapriya
“Their much-awaited economic policy statement turned out to be nothing. The main problem with the NPP is there is no real analysis of the problem nor a cohesive plan of action. Anura Kumara Dissanayake is a Putin-by-day and Biden-by-night. What he says to the business community is not what he tells the public on the platform. If people are going to fall for [his] likes once again, we will never come out of this mess.” –Kabir Hashim, SJB Press Conference, 27 January 2023
With the Local Government elections in full sway, Sri Lanka’s main political parties are once again formulating and debating policies. The main Opposition, the SJB, has come out against parties seeking alternatives to engagement with the IMF. it has been particularly critical of its main opponent in the Opposition, the JVP-NPP, which organised an Economic Forum at the Galadari Hotel last week. As the SJB’s Harsha de Silva implied at a press conference, whatever the party in power may be, we need to implement IMF reforms.
The National Economic Forum was a masterclass in presentation and propaganda. Aimed at Colombo’s business establishment, it ended up proposing policies that are, to say the least, anathema to this crowd. The JVP-NPP’s critics have often faulted the party for being vague and abstruse about its stances. The Economic Forum revived these criticisms: MPs came out in support of a radical alternative to the current system, but failed to offer a clear, nuanced statement on what constitutes that alternative.
To be sure, such criticisms should not detract us from the need for an alternative. Yet the JVP-NPP’s lack of focus on who, or what, should drive the country’s development remains intriguing to say the least. While the Forum ended up reinforcing belief in the private sector as the engine of growth, MPs and party activists elsewhere were busy refuting such claims, arguing for State intervention. Such contradictions cannot help a party that has come under attack, from the neoliberal right, for its lack of consistency.
For their part, the neoliberal right continues to frame what Devaka Gunawardena calls the market consensus as the only solution worth seeing through. Thus, the right-wing flank of the SJB, which accomodates MPs who owe their political careers to the UNP, as well as the newly neoliberalised flank of the SLPP, which is in government, invoke the rhetoric of sacrifice and better times ahead, predicating growth tomorrow on austerity today. It doesn’t help that the country’s ever protean middle-classes, based mainly in Colombo, are divided on these policies: on the one hand they are against utility tariff and tax hikes, and on the other they are supportive of privatisation and the divestment of State assets.
Despite my criticism of the JVP-NPP, I believe the party’s framing of the need for a radical alternative to neoliberal economics should be encouraged. The JVP-NPP, to be sure, is not the only outfit highlighting or emphasising these alternatives. The Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya (ULS), sections of the Old Left, as well as the centrist and centre-left flanks of the SJB, have argued for and advocated them. No less than Sajith Premadasa has implied that IMF negotiations should not compromise on the country’s economic sovereignty.
Yet with the ULS’s past association with the Rajapaksa regime and the SJB’s rightward tilts – epitomised more than anything else by Harsha de Silva’s and Kabir Hashim’s recent criticisms of the JVP-NPP – it is the JVP-NPP that has gained credence, with critics of the status quo, as an authentic and a radical political option.
I am not in agreement with everything the JVP-NPP stands for. Its stance on the Executive Presidency, as Dayan Jayatilleka has correctly pointed out, is at odds with the tactics and strategies deployed by Left parties elsewhere, prominently in Latin and South America. Its stand on devolution is somewhat ambiguous. It continues to be progressive on every other social issue, including minority rights and LGBTQ rights, but recent statements concerning women have been roundly criticised, if not condemned. As my friend Shiran Illanperuma puts it, the party has been in a permanent state of opposition ever since it lost its hardcore nationalist and student Left flanks, between 2008 and 2012. Its statements on the economy and what it plans to do with it have hence become vague and confused.
However, despite these limitations, I believe that the party’s radical thrusts need to be taken forward. That is because the SJB’s right-wing has been incapable of transcending its fixation with neoliberal economics. It has become a captive to the mantra of the market consensus. Nothing illustrates this more, in my opinion, than Harsha de Silva’s take on the recent tax hikes: he says he opposes a 36 percent rate, but then adds that he and the party favours a 30 percent rate. As a Left critic of the party pointed out to me, between the one and the other, there isn’t much of a difference. For its part, the JVP-NPP has recommended that the minimum threshold for income tax be moved up from Rs 100,000 to Rs 200,000, and that the tax rate be capped at 24 percent.
Kabir Hashim’s advocacy of the UNP’s economic reforms is another case in point. Hashim’s remarks on the UNP’s proposals for the 2005 election at the recent press conference are instructive here. “In 2004, Anura Kumara Dissanayake said the UNP was going to trim State sector jobs and said they wouldn’t allow it. Now in 2022, on NPP platforms he says the State sector is a huge burden to the country and that it cannot give jobs. He took 20 years to understand this… State institutions grew from 107 to 245 since then, with losses of over Rs. 1.2 trillion.” Such statements tell us that while the SJB’s neoliberal flank is unwilling to team up with Ranil Wickremesinghe, it is perfectly willing to continue his policies.
To their credit, the ULS and the Old Left have advocated policies antithetical to the market consensus as well. They are against the current regime’s economic and foreign policy. This does not automatically qualify them as a worthy Opposition, however; the truth is that the Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya, as well as the SLFP along with the Dullas Alahapperuma faction of the SLPP, were in my opinion not vocal or articulate enough against the SLPP when it held power from 2019 to 2022. These outfits fell prey to the intrigues of the Rajapaksas, and though they did not go along the SLPP all the way through, they were unfortunately unable to stop the latter from taking the country down with them last year.
The ULS, the Old Left, the SLFP, and the SLPP dissident faction have hence lost credibility. However, that should not belittle the policies they advocate. The JVP-NPP will, to be sure, not join forces with the ULS: it is too opposed to coalitions to enter such an arrangement. Yet the party has been associated in the past with progressive, if socialist, policies: when it decided to support Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, for instance, it made its support conditional on discontinuing privatisation of state assets. Rajapaksa agreed.
In that recent press conference, Kabir Hashim singled out the JVP for its former support for Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLFP, claiming that that it too is responsible for the current economic mess. What Hashim and his peers in the SJB, who incidentally are at variance with the economic paradigm of no less than the father of their leader, have still not realised is that the policies they advocate, as the alternative to the status quo, are no different to the policies pursued by the current regime. There is at present a bankruptcy of ideas as far as alternatives are concerned in Sri Lanka. The JVP-NPP may not have the best possible policy package. But it needs to be encouraged, if at all because, as far as the Sri Lankan Left goes, it can win big at the upcoming elections. Who doesn’t like a winner?
At the same time, the SJB’s centre and centre-left flanks must be concretely encouraged to prevent the party, as a whole, from becoming a right-wing neoliberal outfit. In that sense, Sajith Premadasa’s recent intervention, his cogent critique of going all out for austerity, was a success: it essentially got the neoliberal flank of the party to reverse its pro-IMF rhetoric. Such manoeuvres may not be to the liking of MPs whose ideas for economic reform do not differ or depart substantially from the UNP’s programme. But it is essential that there be a counter to the latter policies, if at all because we cannot continue with all out austerity. To quote that old Gramscian quip, the old world lies dying and the new struggles to be born. In such a context, it would be utter madness to continue living in the old world.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com
Rally the People, One Nation, One Call Free Sri Lanka:Independence Day 2023
Today we Sri Lankans are a people ransomed by successive national governments to foreign creditors and super powers who hold us Lilliputians in their Gulliver palms! Therefore come Independence Day February 4, 2023, we must ask the question, what are Independence Days that countries celebrate? The qualified answer is: they are to commemorate Nationhood free from foreign domination and the beginning of a country’s freedom from foreign powers and achievement of national independence. This in essence is the basis laid down for celebration of Independence Day by all accounts and definitions.
Sri Lanka’s indebtedness and continued process of falling into further debt to pay the immediate debts is now a spiraling Sword of Damocles on the unborn heads of generations to come. Even though an expected tranche of US$2.9 Bn bailout package from the IMF is supposed to give a short respite, today we live in a nation asphyxiated with foreign creditors awaiting payment with interest that the country is unable to deliver. It is the 17th time since Independence that we go through the rigors of borrowing from the IMF and not instituting policy measures to be sustainable and self-sufficient Nation. However the crunch time now is irreparable insolvency, finding yet no solution in sight to be free from servicing debt repayments or even finding the means to effect the same.
Decades of beggary, being beholden to foreign powers to the extent of appeasing them politically, economically and culturally are evident in the many ways this island nation has had to concede to India and China on numerous occasions. The bottom line and pressing reality for the Nationhood of Sri Lanka is any key decision on our ports, energy, security, minority interests, even the selection of Free Trade Agreements with partner countries, divestiture of national assets etc all fall prey to the interests of those money lending institutions and nations to whom Sri Lanka is beholden during the 75 years of its so called independence.
Let us take a reality check. We the people of this country are now locked into hitherto unprecedented all time record of unsustainable debt, bankruptcy, economic contraction, galloping inflation, penury, malnourishment, failing health care, rising mortality rates, school drop outs, erosion of democracy and democratic institutions to name a few. Professionals, technicians, blue collar works, housemaids leave the country in droves for earning in foreign climes.
The massive brain drain of expertise and technical capacity moving out of the country remains the highest on record. The Government Budget shows no heed of expenditure curbs. It has no credible implementation mechanism to increase revenue through pragmatic taxation of high income earners. Instead, the middle and poorer professional classes are caught in its tentacles of direct and indirect taxation policies. In essence, the Government of the day has no sustainable way forward to take the Nation out of the dark tunnel of hopelessness to which it has sunk.
Amidst this carnage of nationhood, says the President of Sri Lanka glibly, “we must celebrate the 75th Independence Anniversary, otherwise, the world will say that we are not capable of celebrating even our independence” That is the puerile and even petty justification given by an Executive President for holding the Independence Day Ceremonies with an estimated total cost of Rs.200 million at a time when it is internationally known that we are a bankrupt debtor nation beholden to the charity of our creditors, private lenders, and bilateral lenders like India, China, Japan and international lending organizations.
However, according to the President what must be advertised to the world at large is that on February 4, 1948, Ceylon was granted independence as the Dominion of Ceylon. The fact such Dominion status within the British Commonwealth was retained for another 24 years until May 22, 1972 until Ceylon became a Republic of Sri Lanka remains a factual aside to this remembrance of things past. What really is the relevance of old historical tales of the Kandyan Rebellions of 1818, 1848, the Muslim Uprising of 1915, the saga of past heroes culminating in Independence given on a platter to Sri Lanka in 1948 unlike in India where it was the culmination of the struggles of the Mahathma Gandhi and his followers.
In this context it is an insult to injury for the Government to spend the tax payers money on a mere show of strength and military grandeur by the armed forces parading in front of a President who is not elected by the people but instead supported by the now debased SLPP Party of deposed former President Gotabaya and former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is a fact that the combined assault of the major political parties as the UNP headed by Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe of the infamous and defunct Yahapalanaya , now signed up to uphold the notorious corrupt degenerate governments of the Rajapaksas have over several decades run the country to debt and more unpayable debt until the nation is today groveling before the big powers with a begging bowl.
The utter mis-management of the economy since the ” glory days” of independence, the successive reliance for short term financial rolling on the International Monetary Fund and other lending organizations, Institutions, bilateral partners for funding which have led to a cumulative monetary disaster, the Machiavellian politicization of the social and economic policies, institutions, public service, judiciary, manipulation of minority and racial riots and schisms have combined to sound the death knell of our independence and sovereignty.
The call of the Lion with a brandished sword on Independence Day is therefore a strident one: Let us all as One People rise up for the free, fair and just nationhood of our beloved mother Lanka! Raise the Flag for a clean, anti-corrupt, sound governance and legitimate leadership representing the People! Victory comes not by regurgitating old victories, but in facing the battle of today: To Fight the Good Fight one and all must be the Independence of nationhood that we celebrate and prize beyond all measure.
The politics of opposing imperialism and neoliberalism
By Uditha Devapriya
One of the most important debates to emerge from the history of the Left movement in Sri Lanka – by which I include the Old and the New Left – is whether they were correct to ally with formations that were anything but socialist. Be it the LSSP’s decision to join forces with the SLFP, or the JVP’s decision to support candidates fronted by Sri Lanka’s definitive right-wing party, the UNP, these choices have divided socialist activists. History is yet to deliver a verdict on them. Until it does, I am afraid that we can only speculate.
Of course, it’s not just the Sri Lankan Left. Socialist parties everywhere and anywhere – from the US to India, and beyond – have joined forces with non-socialist formations. In Sri Lanka it is the Old Left, the LSSP and the Communist Party, that are called out for having betrayed socialist causes and allied with such formations. But other Left outfits have done the same thing: from the NSSP to the JVP. While these parties are yet to receive the same degree of criticism the Old Left has, it must be admitted that, at least from the perspective of practical politics, they all considered it necessary to enter into various alliances.
I am not sufficiently versed in Marxist literature to justify or criticise this. I am aware that Marxist figureheads of the 20th century, including Stalin, were not above forming tactical alliances with other formations. And it wasn’t just Stalin. The LSSP’s decision to support the SLFP, in 1964, can partly be traced to the shifts of opinion within the Trotskyite movement regarding alliances with non-socialist parties. It is on the basis of such shifts that parties like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have become part of mainstream outfits like the Democratic Party, which can hardly be described as left-wing.
At the local and the global level, then, the socialist Left’s main dilemma, essentially, is whether it should join forces with other formations to fight a greater evil, the greater evil usually defined as imperialism or neoliberalism.
Marxists call out on sections of the Left which support Russia against Ukraine, or China against the United States, on the grounds that states like Russia and China are no more or no less imperialist than the West. These activists argue that no one country holds exclusive rights to the concept of imperialism. As such, the task of the Left should be, not to take sides with one camp or the other, but to oppose all forms of imperialism.
There is nothing inherently objectionable with such a strategy. The task of socialist politics, after all, is supposed to be the emancipation or liberation of the masses from all forms of oppression. Viewed this way, a viable, progressive socialist movement must be prepared to oppose not just US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Russian intervention in Syria and Eastern Europe. The objective or telos of such a stance, comments Dan La Botz in New Politics, would be to secure “a world free from oppression and exploitation, one in which all human beings can have a voice and a vote about their future.”
While being generally supportive of these objectives and tactics, however, we need to be mindful whether such an outlook will create equivalences where there simply aren’t any. After all, for socialists of the Third Camp, it doesn’t matter which imperialism you oppose: no one holds a monopoly over its meaning or its deployment.
The core question as far as the global Left is concerned, then, is what imperialism entails. Third Camp socialists would contend that imperialism involves the conquest of other territories. This would include not just Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also China’s designs in Hong Kong. Their opponents, by contrast, would argue that imperialism, not unlike fascism, is dependent on certain criteria, such as the possession of economic and military strength – on which basis there would only be one imperialist power, the US.
These debates have shaped socialist politics in countries like Sri Lanka as well. This is especially so where critiques of right-wing nationalism, including Sinhala nationalism, are concerned. Certain Marxists, especially in the Global South, tend to erase any distinction between nationalist and neoliberal outfits, arguing that there is no distinction to be made, and that as far as the Left is concerned, it should not take sides with either.
To be sure, nationalist formations can invoke the rhetoric of anti-imperialism. This is palpably so in Sri Lanka, as witness parties like the National Freedom Front. Yet their critics on the Left point out that not only are such displays of anti-imperialism mere eyewash, but that if encouraged, these outfits can even appropriate discussions over issues which the socialist camp should be taking up. On those grounds, the New Left contends, dogmatically, that nationalist and neoliberal outfits must be equally opposed.
I understand this attitude, and to understand it is, at one level, to empathise with it. The nationalist and in particular Sinhala nationalist right – often construed as the alt-right – has done itself very few favours over the last few decades. It has attempted to raise the banner of anti-imperialism, but has failed to acknowledge a more cohesive, inclusive framing of country so necessary for anti-imperialist politics. As I have mentioned many times, in this paper and elsewhere, we must oppose chauvinism from this standpoint.
I do not necessarily agree with those who take issue with the nationalist right’s gripe with Westernisation and globalisation, simply because such agitation is a symptom of a deeper malaise: it is a variant on the same agitation to be found among blue-collar workers in the US against China. But I do agree with those Marxist commentators who chastise nationalists for framing their politics within what Devaka Gunawardena calls “an exclusivist definition of community.” For Sinhala nationalists, or a majority of them, anti-imperialism appears less directed at neoliberal politics than at other racial groups, an easier target. In targeting the latter, it even ends up borrowing the language of the imperialist: hence Jathika Chintanaya’s obsession with Samuel Huntington and his clash of civilisations agitprop.
At the same time, sections of the Left, demonstrating that purist strain which has for so long besmirched academic Marxism, appear to refuse not just to join forces with nationalist formations – in itself not execrable – but also to acknowledge the economic and material factors that led to their growth. Instead, such parties and outfits are automatically termed as suspect, and viewed with the same suspicion with which neoliberal outfits are. This is what explains the Left’s horrendous failure to address, much less deal with or resolve, the tide of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism which accompanied the neoliberal reforms of the J. R. Jayewardene and Chandrika Kumaratunga governments.
Their assumptions regarding these developments follow the same logic which Third Camp socialists deploy when equating Western imperialism with Russian and Chinese imperialism. Such logic seems to me as misplaced as the tactic of supporting whatever formation, simply because it claims to be opposed to imperialism or neoliberalism.
Let me be clear here, then. I believe that the task of socialist activists, in the Global North, is not to feign moral neutrality, but rather to recognise certain distinctions between the forms of imperialism they oppose. NATO, to put it bluntly, possesses the sort of firepower which Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China does not, as every Defence Strategy Paper authored by the Pentagon should make us realise. This is the basis on which the global Marxist Left must begin to address and confront the politics of hegemony.
I believe, also, that the task of socialist activists in the Global South is to recognise distinctions between the neoliberal politics against which they are pitted, and nationalist formations which hold up anti-imperialist slogans. This does not mean the Left should join with the latter. Far from it. But the Left must certainly acknowledge that, as powerful as the latter may be, such formations are powerless compared to the former.
In other words, the fight against hegemony must begin from the recognition of the fact that there are no competing imperial or authoritarian forces out there. It is possible to oppose Putin from a socialist standpoint, just as it is possible to oppose right-wing nationalism in countries like ours. Yet such critiques should be constructive. Third Camp socialists who feign neutrality risk not just preaching to the choir, but, more dangerously, ceding moral space to more powerful antagonistic forces. It is against these forces, at home and abroad, that socialists must bare their sabres. This should be their first priority.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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