For far too long, the opposition in Sri Lanka has concerned itself with abstractions and ideals: presidential term limits, constitutional checks and balances, judicial independence, individual rights, and so on. While these are laudable and must certainly be planked into the platform of any democratic resistance, by themselves they are hardly enough.
Debates over which direction the opposition – the SJB – should be headed generally centre on the extent to which it has adhered to these tenets and incorporated them. These debates have bifurcated into two schools of thought: one that holds the opposition should take on the government head first, and another that holds it should come out clean on those tenets. Dayan Jayatilleka, Senior International Relations Advisor to the leader of the SJB, subscribes to the first school; pretty much everyone else prefers the second.
Lately, though not too lately, the SJB has tended to attract the ire if not scrutiny of those opposed to the present government. Their criticism and scrutiny of the opposition generally revolves around two points: that it doesn’t conform to their conception of a liberal democratic outfit, and that the leader isn’t doing as much as he should to challenge the status quo. These critiques dovetail with still others: for instance, that Sajith Premadasa should not have let Dr Dayan, against whom they project some ineffable phobia I find difficult to explain, let alone rationalise, into the party. Indeed, much of the anti-SJB rhetoric among critics of this regime centres on the SJB selecting him. It’s as if, frustrated by the failures of the government, its critics are channelling their fury against the opposition.
Indeed, over the last few weeks and months, criticism after criticism has been made, remade, and published again and again about the SJB, and more frequently about Dr Dayan. Hence Harindra Dassanayake calls the latter a “frenemy of democracy”, Chamindra Weerawardhana calls him a “Premadasa hagiographer”, Krishantha Cooray wonders what would happen with him “roaming the corridors of power” in a SJB government, and Kumar David frames him as “an agent of the arsonist bent on stoking the flames.” On Twitter these censures tend to turn vitriolic, as a cursory glance at tweets on the SJB will show; to give but one example, Asanga Welikala’s blunt dismissal of him as a “Cold War era Third Worldist dinosaur.”
It pays to make sense of how critiques of this Third Worldist dinosaur reflect on critiques being made of the SJB. Dr Dayan’s argument regarding the latter is simple: an opposition cannot be expected to enter into an alliance with a party associated with the politics of appeasement, a party not only reduced to a single, still unclaimed national list seat, but one which not too long ago opposed every reformist move from within. The SJB could not have come to where it is but for the intransigence of the UNP; but it is less an irony than a tragedy that the UNP could have avoided its shrinkage had it conceded to the Young Turks of the SJB. To quote Dr Dayan, this was a long time coming.
His second line of argument follows from his first: if the opposition cannot be expected and should not allow itself to be co-opted by the UNP, it must not cave into tactics advocated by ex-pro-UNP ideologues. Instead it must turn and look inward, taking a cue from democratic oppositions from everywhere while mobilising races and classes, and every other grassroots group, against the government. He does not specify what these tactics are, but cites examples from Argentina, Chile, Indonesia, the Philippines, Uruguay, and the US.
Having adopted such a front, the opposition’s battle of ideas must intersect with a battle of hearts and minds. It must engage in a balancing act, addressing the concerns of the majority without indulging them to the exclusion of the minorities. While that tactic does not in itself exclude such liberal civil society concerns as the abolition of the Executive Presidency, these concerns should be relegated to the exigencies of a resistance movement. The primary goal is to win in 2024, not conjure up fanciful approximations of liberal utopias.
His prescription, then, isn’t so much abolishing institutions associated with the government as performing a careful surgery on them. On the Executive Presidency, for example, his position is unequivocal: no country in the world governed by an autocratic presidency got rid of its leadership by getting rid of the presidential system. This reasoning unnerves his critics, but insofar as his point about the futility of ditching the system goes, it must be pointed out that autocracy has hardly ever been the preserve of specific political systems; to assume that the Executive Presidency solely has led to a concentration of authoritarianism in the country is to forget the periods of authoritarianism which prevailed before its establishment in 1977; even with Dominion status, after all, the absence of a powerful presidency did not prevent the then UNP regime from disenfranchising estate workers and attacking the Left.
Given the commonsensical rationale underlying these tactics, it’s not a little surprising that the latter have been dismissed by many intellectuals. That says more about those dismissing the tactics than they do about the viability of the tactics themselves.
The failure of the liberal and left-liberal intelligentsia in Sri Lanka, which in general has excluded Dr Dayan from its cloistered circles, has always been its failure to compromise on values in the face of battles against bigger enemies. Its lapses are not so much of flexibility and adaptability as those of rationality, indeed of logic itself.
These lapses of logic explain their myopic attitude to the LTTE. While several Western publications, including The Economist, condemned the latter as totalitarian or fascist, local intellectual heavyweights dismissed them or regarded them with apathy. History proved the latter wrong, eventually; as late as 2004, they were arguing the government would lose the war, while Dr Dayan penned the only serious piece that predicted the opposite. In a country of Dick Morrises (American political author) who get their political predictions wrong almost all the time, the opposition leader’s Senior Advisor on International Relations, whose credentials speak for themselves and are second to none, remains as refreshing an exception as ever; I realise that this is less a tribute to him than it is an indictment of the intellectual obduracy of his critics.
What explains the latter’s jaundiced view of things? Fundamentally, it reveals a failure to distinguish between political movements as well as systems. The liberal/left-liberal caucus in the country persists in viewing the excesses of the Rajapaksas and the Executive Presidency, and indeed every institution associated with the latter, on a continuum: the one is seen as tied to the other. Simultaneously, it tends to conflate authoritarianism with populism, making the one indistinguishable from the other. In other words, liberal critics of the regime recommend that structures be dismantled and personalities replaced, rather than question why people vote in large numbers for such personalities and such structures.
These commentators view politics as a contest between liberalism and populism and identify the latter with fascism. The experience of the Global South, however, shows that such fine distinctions, though quite relevant in the West, do not really hold water in societies like ours. This has nothing to do with a tilting of voters to authoritarianism and populism, as wry commentators snidely imply from time to time. Rather, it has to do with the failures of reformist liberals to address issues which really matter to those voters.
In fairness to Dr Dayan, I must confess that I disagree with him over certain matters. For instance, while he sees the present regime as ultranationalist or bordering on fascism, I see it more as that of a centre-right Bonapartist lacking the Bonapartist’s ability to balance classes. His critique of the regime’s economic model also seems a tad misplaced: contrary to what he and the likes of Harsha de Silva insinuate, the government hasn’t completely banned imports, apart from certain consumer items, and will probably not do so either.
Yet these niceties do not detract from the validity of what he writes about the opposition: that unless it grows up and discards the ideologies and the personalities of the past, it cannot win. In this he is hardly a dinosaur, let alone a Cold War era Third Worldist. Perhaps the real dinosaurs are the ideologies of those who use such terms: ideologies that have been tried and tested, again and again, in this part of the world, only to flicker away. What we need is a reset in the opposition. That can only come from someone like Dr Dayan in it.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
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
A damning indictment of Sri Lanka’s political and security establishment
By Rathindra Kuruwita
Armies in the midst of combat learn incredibly fast. This isn’t the case with peacetime militaries, as has been evident in Sri Lanka.During the 25-year-long war that it waged against the Tamil separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Sri Lankan military came up with a strategy and a series of tactics in the last phase of the war that enabled it to inflict a comprehensive defeat on the terror outfit. The Sri Lankan intelligence services efficiently identified targets and eliminated them, stymieing LTTE operations, and making rear areas safe.
However, ten years after the end of the war, the Sri Lankan defense establishment, pampered by a decade of peace and hampered by political squabbling between President Maithripala Sirisena and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, proved incompetent. It was unable to prevent suicide bombers of the Islamic State group-affiliated National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) from carrying out a string of deadly attacks across the island on Easter Sunday of 2019.
On that day (April 21), bombs ripped through three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, killing around 279 people and injuring over 500 others.
The island is no stranger to terror attacks; its 25-year-long civil war was often punctuated by suicide bombings in crowded civilian areas. Yet the Easter Sunday attacks as they are known were unprecedented. Not only did they lay bare the vast jihadist network on the island but they also underscored the abject failure of Sri Lanka’s political and security establishment to secure the Sri Lankan people.
In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, Sri Lanka was roiled in intense debate and discussion over why a country with an oversized security apparatus and enormous experience in fighting terrorism failed to prevent the attacks.
A recent Supreme Court verdict provides some insights. Last week, a seven-judge bench ruled that President Sirisena and other senior officials failed to prevent the deadly attacks although they were in possession of credible and actionable intelligence. The Supreme Court noted that “the want of attention on the part of the important players heading the security apparatus of this country is unpardonable. The apex court has said that those in charge of the country’s national security worked in silos and acted with lethargy, without vision, and were mainly interested in protecting their fiefdoms.”
This is remarkably similar to the observations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday Attacks.
Issuing a verdict on 12 fundamental rights petitions alleging that leaders of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government (2015-2019) and those in charge of national security failed to take action to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings despite receiving sufficient intelligence, the apex court pointed out that “reasonable men” would have behaved differently.
Casting aside arguments of presidential immunity that most Sri Lankan leaders use to evade responsibility for what transpired during their tenure, the Supreme Court ordered Sirisena to pay 100 million Sri Lankan rupees (around $270,000) to the victims of the attacks. Several other top officials including former Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara, former State Intelligence Service (SIS) director Nilantha Jayawardena, former Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, and former Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) Sisira Mendis have been ordered to pay monetary compensation to victims as well.
Sirisena has said that he did not know about the attacks. “I was abroad when the attacks happened. I have told many times that I was not informed of the intelligence any officer received. Even the court found no evidence of this,” he said.
The former president has asked why he needs to pay the victims compensation. “The Supreme Court says that if an official appointed by the President makes a mistake, the President is also to be blamed. I have no money to pay. I will have to collect money from my friends,” he said.
The verdict dampens Sirisena’s political aspirations. He is the head of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which was expecting to make a comeback in the upcoming local council elections.The Supreme Court has drawn attention to the “pinpointed allegation” leveled by petitioners against Sirisena’s “executive inertia” and his failure to take “steps to avert the mayhem and destruction,” when “it was within his powers to have ensured the personal liberty and security of the people and prevented the precarious slide into anarchy.”
The Court also pointed out that as early as 2015, the security establishment was aware of a growing threat from Islamic extremism and NTJ chief Zahran Hashim. However, nothing was done to neutralize these threats.
During an earlier appearance at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday attacks, SIS director Jayawardena had said he received intelligence on April 4, 2019 from a foreign counterpart about a possible terrorist attack by April 20 by Hashim and his associates. By April 9, Jayawardena had informed the IGP and the CNI about the information he had received. The CNI, too, had written to the IGP on SIS intelligence. The IGP then sent both these letters to the Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (SDIG) (Western Province and Traffic), the SDIG (Crimes and STF), the DIG (Special Protection Range), and the director of the Counter Terrorism and Terrorism Investigation Department with a note for demanding necessary action.
Not only did the IGP not provide pointed instructions to his subordinates, but he also didn’t share the information with the DIG of the Eastern Province, the hotbed of Islamic extremist activities. In fact, the NTJ carried out a dry run on April 16 at Palamunai, Kattankudy, which baffled the policemen there as they were not privy to information that the NTJ was readying for a terror attack.
SDIG Jayawardena said that the SIS had been informed in 2017 of the danger Hashim posed and that he had urged the relevant agencies to arrest him. However, Jayawardena said that he did not inform the political authorities about the possible attacks. He reiterated this in his statement before the Supreme Court as well.
Importantly, Jayawardena did not bring up the intelligence input he had received during his weekly intelligence meetings, where all senior military and law enforcement officers as well as representatives of the political authority are present. The Court noted that if the former SIS director has spoken about the imminent attack at this meeting or presented the information he had on the suspects to the tri-forces, the disaster could have been averted with a series of quick arrests.
Although several key officers in charge of national security were aware of an impending terror attack, no NSC meeting was summoned between April 4 and 21. The officers did not inform the president of the threat posed by the NTJ although Sirisena visited Batticaloa, a town which is near Kattankudy, Hashim’s hometown.
Jayawardena received further intelligence from his foreign counterpart on April 20 at 1642 hours, information he classified as “most vital, specific and reliable intelligence.” The court observed that he used WhatsApp and SMS to notify the secretary of defense (at 1653 hours), SDIG in charge of the CID (1654), CNI (1702) and IGP (1707) He proceeded to call the secretary of defense (1802), IGP (1703), SDIG in charge of the Western Province (1755), SDIG in charge of the CID (1657), SDIG in charge of the Special Task Force (1927 and 2009), and the DIG Colombo (1909 and 2124). However, it seems that no one took the initiative to beef up security near the main churches and hotels or to reach out to the Catholic Church to explore the possibility of canceling Easter Sunday religious activities.
In its verdict, the apex court says, “the intelligence received proved true but the mobilization of counter terrorism measures or its facilitation through an effective dissemination of forebodings to stem the impending disaster was totally absent and this clearly shows how security mechanisms in the country remained fragile and in shambles.”
President Sirisena was in Singapore for a medical check-up on April 20. Jayawardena told both the court and the Presidential Commission that he could not contact the President.
Throughout the court proceedings Jayawardena insisted that he did not inform the president of the imminent threat because his reporting officers were the IGP and the defense secretary. This is a position that the Supreme Court did not accept. The court said that senior officials in charge of national security are obliged to consult the defense minister on matters of extreme importance and that they cannot evade responsibility by stating that they do not have direct access to him.
It must be noted that in late 2018, Sirisena attempted to remove Wickremesinghe from the prime minister’s post. While Wickremesinghe regained his position through judicial means, the relationship between the two men was strained and Wickremesinghe was not invited to NSC meetings again.
Sirisena’s failure to act was also partly an outcome of his suspicions of any intelligence coming from India. He was convinced that India wanted to assassinate him.
Given that the court focused only on the fundamental rights violations of the victims, it did not make recommendations on streamlining the intelligence apparatus. However, the Presidential Commission on the attacks had made several recommendations on preventing the recurrence of such incidents. The final report of the Commission was handed over to then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on February 2021 and to Parliament a year later. So far, nothing has been done to address the gaps in intelligence gathering, dissemination, and coordination.
The Easter Sunday bombings underscored Sri Lanka’s extreme and continuing vulnerability to religious extremism and terrorist violence. Importantly, it underscored shortcomings in the way individuals in positions of authority and key institutions allow personal bias and politics to prevent action to secure the country.
What Sri Lanka needs is a mechanism whereby various stakeholders involved in national security are compelled to share information in a way that vital information flows to concerned agencies and institutions unimpeded.
Will the government address the problem laid bare by investigations into the Easter Sunday bombings and underscored by the Supreme Court verdict? It is unlikely as the government is preoccupied with the economic crisis. Importantly, with elections around the corner, the Supreme Court verdict has become an issue for parties to draw political mileage and score political points. Consequently, security will suffer.
The Left, the Nationalist Right, and industrialisation as policy
By Uditha Devapriya
By now we know that the government’s prescription for the economic crisis is greater austerity. The regime has outright rejected welfare measures or state intervention, and is heavily promoting the neoliberal agenda of privatisation, deregulation, and tax hikes. While economic think-tanks in Colombo have effectively welcomed these proposals, trade unions and Left activists bitterly oppose them. Yet the situation is not comparable to what it was a year ago: the middle-classes that cheered Left outfits at the Gotagogama protests have now chosen to ignore them, even as the State rounds them up and arrests them.
It is against these tensions that the Dullas Alahapperuma faction of the SLPP, which includes nationalist stalwarts previously associated with the Rajapaksas, like Wimal Weerawansa and Gevindu Cumaratunga, has teamed up with the SLFP and sections of the Old Left, including the LSSP, the Democratic Left Front, and the Communist Party. Ostensibly opposed to the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa regime, these formations have, while not expressing support for Left groups agitating against the present government, distanced themselves from the SLPP-UNP combination and by extension its economic agenda.
There is little doubt that the latter agenda will provoke a backlash or a response, of some form and magnitude. Yet, as Devaka Gunawardena points out in a thoughtful piece in Polity Magazine, “[d]etermining the progressive or reactionary character of that response… is key.” Gunawardena, a research scholar based in the US, argues that the situation today is comparable to the John Kotelawala UNP regime of 1953-1956, which itself came to power in the aftermath of the Hartal and was defeated by an array of Sinhala nationalist forces led by the SLFP. The analogy is clear: the regime felled by the Left in 1953 is similar to the deposed Rajapaksa government and the regime that followed it is similar to the present government. The question here is, who or what will lead the opposition to the latter.
Gunawardena argues against letting the oppositional space be dominated by the ex-SLPP, SLFP, and Old Left. This would obviously include the Uttara Lanka Sabhawa. His rationale is, simply, that these groups, particularly the right-wing elements in them, once associated and hobnobbed with the Rajapaksa regime, and hence cannot be trusted to come up with a truly radical alternative to the present regime’s neoliberal agenda. Their programme, he points out, is anchored in an “expanded role” for Statist elements, including the military, as well as virulent opposition to the privatisation of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and to Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). It is, in essence, dirigiste in outlook and conception.
It should be noted here that Gunawardena is right in his observation that dirigisme is not necessarily a socialist imperative. In an article published in New Politics (“Remembering Dependency Theory: A Marxist-Humanist Review”), Edward Tapa lays down a convincing critique of Marxists and socialists who idealised industrialisation, and state intervention, and on that basis formed alliances with petty bourgeois (small capitalist) parties in the hopes of fermenting a revolution in their countries. While not necessarily agreeing with Tapas’s view or implication that a preoccupation with such strategies led the Left in the Global South – in countries like ours, that is – to neglect the all-important issue of class struggle, I agree with his argument that industrialisation as pursued in such countries immediately prior to the era of neoliberal globalisation did not achieve the desired outcomes.
I certainly concede that ULS (Uttara Lanka Sabha) and dissenting SLPP faction, as well as the Old Left, have framed their economic policy in terms of a more interventionist State, though this is not the end-all and be-all of their programme. Such a State would, in some respects, be an improvement over the UNP-SLPP’s proposal for its retrenchment and divestment. In others, it would be grossly inadequate. The likes of Gunawardena object particularly to the inclusion of Sinhala nationalist parties, outfits which, in their view, are in favour of the same policies and share the same ideology as the parties they now claim to oppose. In this respect, he contends that the Nationalist Right’s framing of the need for industrialisation, which the Old Left has taken up as well, must be scrutinised, critiqued, and if necessary, rejected.
All this dovetails with the question of whether industrialisation in itself constitutes a viable departure from and alternative to the present government’s neoliberal agenda. Marxist academics attach importance to what Gunawardena calls “proposals for economic recovery that hinge on mass mobilisation.” By contrast, the parties he associates with the Nationalist Right, including the Freedom People’s Alliance (FPA), favour an interventionist State moored in “appeals to nationalism and an exclusivist definition of community.”
My response to this is that industrialisation per se, as a Left or Nationalist Right construct, requires the kind of dirigiste State being promoted by these and other formations, including formations on the right and the centre-right. In that sense, the real question, for me, is not whether the Nationalist Right’s proposals for nationalisation and industrialisation constitute a radical alternative to the SLPP-UNP’s agenda, but whether, from a socialist and Marxist perspective, the Nationalist Right’s articulation of such proposals automatically disqualifies the latter as an alternative to that agenda. I would contend it does not.
I posit two reasons for this. The first reason is that the mainstream Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya, includes a not insignificant segment which is basically in agreement with the government’s neoliberal policies. This segment includes a number of MPs who owe their political career to Ranil Wickremesinghe, even though Wickremesinghe’s arch nemesis is their leader. Against this backdrop, the New Left, led by the JVP-NPP and FSP, is sending mixed signals about their stance on the government’s neoliberal programme. On the one hand, the JVP-NPP has made contradictory statements over issues like private education and the IMF, some of which I mentioned last week. On the other hand, the more consistent FSP is experimenting with coalitions with other parties, including the SJB.
What does this mean, in terms of political strategy? It means that the centre-right and the centre-left is facing an existential crisis, perhaps the biggest such crisis in decades. Both these formations lack, as I mentioned last week, the proverbial fire in the belly. The SJB, specifically its anti-Ranilist and pro-Premadasa wing, has the potential to move to the Left if not centre-left, while the New Left, especially the JVP-NPP has the potential to dominate discussions over the issues that the National Right has taken over. Viewing industrialisation and state intervention as right-wing policies without incorporating them into a left-wing policy platform helps no one, least of all the JVP-NPP dominated New Left that now accuses the Nationalist Right of playing a duplicitous game vis-à-vis the SLPP and UNP.
The second reason is that the radical politics espoused by the New Left and certain Marxist academics and activists requires a total and continuous campaign of mass resistance. This would obviously call for trade union mobilisation. Now, Sri Lanka does not lack strong and activist trade unions. However, unions have seen a decline in membership since the 1980s, so much so that union density in the country is barely 10% today.
Moreover, barring sectors like textiles, private sector workers lack union representation. The public sector does not lack representation, but any union agitation involving public sector workers would pit the latter, not against the capitalist framework opposed by the Left, but against middle-class taxpayers who claim they are contributing to government coffers and, even when battered by neoliberal reforms, are virulently opposed to strikes and walkouts. There is clearly no room here for a repeat of the 1953 Hartal.
What I am suggesting here is that the Left simply lacks the base on which it can oppose, let alone overthrow, the regime’s neoliberal agenda through mass resistance and mobilisation alone. Such strategies can and will lead to the overthrow of individual regimes, but as last year’s protests showed, it can only end with the replacement of one authoritarian regime by another. I would certainly concede that the Nationalist Right needs to be opposed from an anti-imperialist standpoint. But any rejection of the policies they propose – policies such as the nationalisation of strategic sectors – would lead to the Nationalist Right dominating if not monopolising discussions over those proposals. That should be avoided.
To prevent this from happening, the New Left needs to focus on industrialisation as much as it is focusing, at present, on social welfarist or mass resistance programmes. This is not just because Sri Lanka’s crisis is heavily rooted in a lack of manufacturing and a dependence on imports: a point noted by economists and scholars like Jayati Ghosh and Prabat Patnaik. It is also because the Left in Sri Lanka can gain more firepower and moral strength from focusing on such policies. By doing so, it will be able to take back discussions on them from the same Nationalist Right it now opposes, thereby winning the debate.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com.
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