Drafting of new constitution begins
The drafting of the new constitution to replace the 1978 constitution has begun even before the 20th Amendment has been through the committee stage in Parliament. The Special Experts Committee to Draft a New Constitution headed by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva has been allocated offices in the BMICH, and three senior officers of the Ministry of Justice have been appointed to the Secretariat of the Committee. Sittings of the committee have already commenced with meetings being held every Friday. Two formal weekly meetings have already been held.
The other members of the committee are President’s Counsel Manohara De Silva, President’s Counsel Sanjeewa Jayawardena, President’s Counsel Naveen Marapana, Prof. Nazeema Kamardeen, Dr. A. Sarveswaran, President’s Counsel Samantha Ratwatte, Prof.Wasantha Senevirathne and Prof.G.H.Peiris. The fact that this Committee has commenced work would have been headline news in normal circumstances but it has been completely overshadowed by the latest Covid-19 outbreak.
For that matter, Covid-19 has drowned out the noise generated over the 20th Amendment as well. The government can be seen to be taking a very cautious approach to this Covid-19 cluster with whole villages and individual establishments being shut down at the slightest suspicion that an infected person may have visited the place concerned. Quite a number of false alarms have been reported but the government is proceeding on the basis that it’s better to be safe than sorry. There seems to be little doubt that the government agencies concerned will be able to get over this latest Covid crisis as well.
Even though yahapalana theorists have raised a mighty caterwaul of protest claiming that the 20th Amendment will give rise to authoritarian rule, the 20A only restores the constitutional provisions that existed before the 19th Amendment, which essentially means that after the 20th Amendment, the President will have the approximately the same power that past Presidents J.R.Jayewardene, R.Premadasa, D.B.Wijetunga, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and even Maithripala Sirisena had. Even though the 19th Amendment removed some of the powers of the President, the yahapalana President Sirisena continued to enjoy those powers through other means and it’s only the incumbent President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who has had to bear the full brunt of the 19th Amendment.
Yahapalana sleight of hand
One significant way in which the 19th Amendment sought to truncate the President’s powers was by establishing the Constitutional Council which would have the final say in making appointments to important state positions. After the establishment of the Constitutional Council, the President cannot appoint members and Chairmen of Commissions set up by the 19th Amendment such as the Public Service Commission, National Police Commission, the Election Commission, and several other such commissions without the individuals to be appointed being recommended by the Constitutional Council. Likewise when it came to the appointment of Judges to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, the Attorney-General, the Auditor-General and Inspector-General of Police and other such high state positions, any person appointed by the President to such positions had to be approved by the Constitutional Council. Thus either way, it’s the Constitutional Council that has the final say in making such appointments and not the President.
Even though these provisions in the 19th Amendment were supposed to limit the powers of the President, they did not limit President Sirisena’s or the yahapalana government’s powers because the yahapalana political parties working in concert divided up the parliamentary government and the parliamentary opposition among themselves and established a complete hegemony over the Constitutional Council. It goes without saying that if the political backers and promoters of the President have complete and total control over the Constitutional Council, it’s the same as the President exercising those powers and that was the situation during the Sirisena Presidency. President Sirisena’s political setup enjoyed the same powers over high appointments that the political setups of his predecessors did.
Another way in which the 19th Amendment sought to limit the powers of the President was by not allowing the President to hold any ministerial portfolios. Hence the pre-19th Amendment Article 44(2) of the Constitution which said that the President may assign to himself any subject or function and shall remain in charge of any subject or function not assigned to any Minister was repealed. Even though the 19th Amendment never expressly said that the President could not hold a portfolio, the repeal of Article 44(2) was supposed to mean that despite the fact that even under the 19th Amendment, the President continued to be the Head of the Government and the Head of the Cabinet he could not hold a ministerial portfolio. President Sirisena was not affected by this limitation because a transitional provision in the 19th Amendment allowed him not only to assign to himself the subjects and functions of Defence, Mahaweli Development and Environment so long as he holds the Office of President but also to determine the Ministries to be in his charge for that purpose. So all that President Sirisena had to do was to decide upfront which ministries he wanted. All Presidents do in fact decide upfront which ministries he would hold, so President Sirisena despite the 19th Amendment was able to do what all his predecessors did in this regard.
The genuine changes
To be fair, there were in fact a few genuine ways in which President Sirisena’s powers differed from those of his predecessors. The first and foremost of these was that the tenure of the presidency was shortened from six years to five years by changes made to Article 30(2). This was a genuine change and the 20th Amendment seeks to retain this without alteration. Another genuine change was the effective removal of presidential immunity by the 19th Amendment by means of changes made to Article 35(1) of the Constitution. Article 35(1) as amended by the 19th Amendment states that no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against the President in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by the President, either in his official or private capacity, provided that this shall not be construed as restricting the right of any person to make a fundamental rights application in the Supreme Court under Article 126 against the Attorney-General, in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by the President, in his official capacity.
Making the President subject to fundamental rights litigation basically makes it possible to challenge any action that the President takes. In fact the 19th Amendment specifically stated that the Supreme Court shall have no jurisdiction to pronounce upon the exercise of the powers of the President only when it comes to declaring war and peace – which establishes that the Supreme Court can pronounce judgments on virtually everything else other than that one exception. President Sirisena was subject to this provision during his tenure and this was a genuine change made by the 19th Amendment. But it’s an unusual, and arguably counter-productive change. Even under the 1972 Constitution, the ceremonial President was designated the head of the Executive who was required to act on the advice of the Prime Minister. Article 23 of the 1972 Constitution stated that while any person holds office as president, no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against him in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by him in his official or private capacity.
If one takes the Ceylon Constitution Order in Council of 1946, the Executive power was exercised on behalf of the British crown by the Governor-General who was required by convention as mentioned in Article 4(2) of that Constitution to act on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Even though the Governor General was the representative of a titular head of state, even he was protected from litigation with the proviso that no act or omission on the part of the Governor-General shall be called in question in any court of law. We see the same protection accorded to the President of India. Article
53(1) of the Indian constitution says that the executive power of the Indian Union shall be vested in the President. Article 77(1) states that all executive action of the Government of India shall be expressed to be taken in the name of the President. Article 74(1) requires the Indian President to act on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers and the question whether any, and if so what, advice was tendered by Ministers to the President cannot be inquired into in any court. Under Article 77(2) of the Indian constitution, orders and other instruments made and executed in the name of the President shall not be called in question on the ground that it is not an order or instrument made or executed by the President.
Thus we see that in the 1946 Ceylon Constitution Order in Council, the first Republican Constitution of 1972 and the second Republican Constitution of 1978, and even in the Indian Constitution, the actions of the head of the executive had always been given immunity from litigation. If the actions of the executive can be subject to litigation, then it can be argued that the final arbiter if not the wielder of executive power will be the judiciary and not the executive. The immunity of the President from suit was removed on the argument of limiting the President’s executive power. That gives the impression that before the 19th Amendment was passed there were no limits on the President’s executive power.
President never had unlimited power
Two Supreme Court cases presided over by former Chief Justice Sarath N.Silva indicate otherwise. The 2006 landmark judgment in Nallaratnam Singarasa vs the Attorney General stated as follows:
“The President exercises the executive power of the People and is empowered to act for the Republic under Customary International Law and enter into treaties and accede to international covenants However,… such acts cannot be inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution or written law. This limitation is imposed since the President is not the repository of the legislative power of the People…. such a treaty or a covenant has to be implemented by the exercise of legislative power by Parliament and where found to be necessary by the People at a Referendum to have internal effect…where the President enters into a treaty or accedes to a Covenant which is “inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution or written law”… such act of the President would not bind the Republic qua state….”
Then there was the famous Waters Edge judgment of 2008 (Sugathapala Mendis and Another vs Chandrika Kumaratunga and Others) where it was stated as follows:
“The principle that those charged with upholding the Constitution – be it a police officer of the lowest rank or the President – are to do so in a way that does not “violate the Doctrine of Public Trust” by state action/inaction is a basic tenet of the Constitution which upholds the legitimacy of Government and the Sovereignty of the People. The “Public Trust Doctrine” is based on the concept that the powers held by organs of government are, in fact, powers that originate with the People, and are entrusted to the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary only as a means of exercising governance and with the sole objective that such powers will be exercised in good faith for the benefit of the People of Sri Lanka. Public power is not for personal gain or favour, but always to be used to optimize the benefit of the People. To do otherwise would be to betray the trust reposed by the People within whom, in terms of the Constitution, the Sovereignty reposes. Power exercised contrary to the Public Trust Doctrine would be an abuse of such power and in contravention of the Rule of Law.”
The Water’s Edge judgment also quoted a previous 1998 judgment by Justice Mark Fernando, Karunathilaka v Dissanayake which stated as follows: “The immunity conferred by Article 35 is neither absolute not perpetual….Article 35 only prohibits the institution (or continuation) of legal proceedings against the President while in office; it imposes no bar whatsoever on proceedings against him when he is no longer in office…To hold otherwise would suggest that the President is, in essence, above the law and beyond the reach of its restrictions. Such a monarchical/dictatorial position is at variance with (1) the Democratic Socialist Republic that the preamble of the Constitution defines Sri Lanka to be, and (ii) the spirit implicit in the Constitution that sovereignty reposes in the People and not in any single person.”
Keeping yahapalana overkill in check
All these cases were heard long before the 19th Amendment. Thus the proviso to article 35(1) introduced by the 19th amendment enabling fundamental rights cases to be filed against the AG over actions taken by the President was clearly a case of yahapalana overkill. The removal of this proviso and the restoration of the pre-19th Amendment Article 35 does not turn the President into an autocrat. It just provides the executive branch of the government the leeway to exercise the powers vested in the executive. While it’s true that former presidents in Sri Lanka have been accused of being authoritarian, the same accusation has been levelled at former Prime Ministers like Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike. Much the same thing was said about Mrs. Indira Gandhi as well.
The person holding the title and functions of head of the government can be as authoritarian or as liberal as he or she is inclined to be. In fact it may be argued by some that Prime Ministers have even greater potential and incentive to be authoritarian because no Prime Minister in the world seems to have term limits whereas almost all presidential systems do have term limits. Even the 20th Amendment will retain the two term limit for the President. Lee Kuan Yew was a Prime Minister but he too was accused of being authoritarian. It just so happens that Presidents tend to attract more charges of authoritarianism than Prime Ministers even though everyone knows at the back of their minds that Prime Ministers who are heads of government can be as every bit as authoritarian as any President holding the position of head of government.
It’s interesting to speculate on why this is so. Is it because the President sits and does his work in grand isolation whereas the Prime Minister sits in Parliament with everyone else and is available to be heckled and booed at? Is it because the President once elected, is very difficult to remove whereas the Prime Minister (at least theoretically) can be thrown out at any moment through a Parliamentary revolt? It has to be noted that under the presidential system introduced by the 1978 Constitution, the President cannot rule without the support of Parliament. In 2001, at a time when President Chandrika Kumaratunga possessed all the powers of J.R. Jayewardene’s presidency, her party lost a parliamentary election and lost her majority in Parliament. She gave all powers to the newly elected Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasnghe and took a back seat for a while. Despite all the hype about authoritarian Presidents, the fact is that both Presidential heads of government and Prime Ministerial heads of government that this country has had in the past, have been completely dependent on Parliamentary majorities to govern. No President can override Parliament even under the pre-19th Amendment 1978 Constitution.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com
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