Positioning science, technology and research to meet new normal industrial challenges
Prof. Tissa Vitarana M.P. (MBBS.MD.Ph.D.(Lond).Dip.Bact.FNASSL)
To overcome the problems due to the present economic crisis and Covid 19 pandemic the revival and development of industries in Sri Lanka is vital. On this World Science Day I’m very happy to deliver the keynote address at the fifth ITI Biennial Research Symposium to make my contribution to on the above theme, and I thank the organizers for providing me with this opportunity.
The evolution and development of human society has been a result of the application of science, technology and research (STR), including innovation, to overcome challenges. The Industrial Technology Institute (ITI), together with other STR (Science, Technology and Research) institutes like the National Engineering and Research Development Centre (NERD) have enabled Sri Lanka to develop from a low income country (annual per capita income of about US dollars (USD) 1,000) to a low middle income country (with about USD 3,850). But we are still an Underdeveloped Country (UC) and have to overcome many more challenges to become a Developed Country (DC).
If much smaller Singapore could become a developed country overcoming the normal industrial challenges, why not us? Singapore had practically no natural or agricultural resources to develop value added industry, but they made full use of their human resources according to a plan, to become a financial and trading hub. In addition they imported raw material, mainly from Malaysia, to develop industries. While Sri Lanka has abundant natural and agricultural resources, it does not make proper use of them. For example we continue to export ilmenite rich sand, which Britain converts into titanium dioxide and titanium (which is vital for the aeronautical industry) and becomes richer, while we remain poor. The same applies for graphite, which Europe converts into graphine, the wonder base for a whole new field of valuable industries.
Overcoming Normal Industrial Challenges
While Sri Lankan scientists and engineers have successfully overcome the many normal industrial challenges, this has been done despite the lack of funds and autonomy to effectively deliver the scientific support that industries require. In general we lack the entrepreneurial spirit to develop value added industries. As Minister of Science and Technology I tried to get Sri Lanka the full benefit from our natural resources by setting up a Centre, SLINTEC, based on the latest Hi-tech, Nanotechnology, but the progress has been slow. For example though scientists there have produced nanoparticles with 40% nitrogen, without developing this, we are obtaining nanoparticles with 4% nitrogen from India.
It would be far better to devote that money to developing our nano nitrogen particle industry. In Sri Lanka mainly the ITI, and other institutions like NERD, provided the STR for the development of nearly 12,300 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) through the 240 Vidatha Centres that were developed countrywide through my initiative while I was Minister (more than 50,000 youth were trained for careers in computer technology). I am glad to hear that over 1,000 of the industries are exporting their products having reached international standards. Many normal industrial challenges have been overcome during this process, thanks to the STR contribution given mainly by the ITI, which can be proud of its achievement.
Overcoming New Normal Industrial Challenges
What then is the meaning of “new normal industrial challenges” and how do we “position” STR to challenge them? While this could mean the challenge posed by new technology abroad, I presume that “new normal” refers mainly to the new challenges arising as a result of the Covid 19 Coronavirus pandemic, and its aftermath. There have been much worse pandemics in the history of the world (e.g. the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed over 30 million people and infected one third of the world’s population) but they have all disappeared in two to three years. The chances are that this one too will fit into that pattern. Obviously the industrial challenges due to Covid will continue for some more months, probably a year or more, though persistence with variants, like influenza may occur as minor epidemics periodically forever. The need for industrial development continues despite this and the problems caused by Covid 19 and the global and local economic crisis, will continue for years. These are discussed below.
The negative impact on the industries in the countries due to the Covid 19 pandemic have to be minimized. For instance the closing down of the industries or cutting staff due to Covid related problems can be reduced if the necessary structures and organizational changes are instituted. Air conditioning increases the risk of any infected person passing on the virus to others. Use of fans and keeping doors and windows open will minimize that risk. Activated carbon air filters replacing what exists would further reduce the risk of virus entry, besides dust particles, into laboratories and factories. At the same time distance between employees should be at least one meter, if possible two meters. Wearing of masks all the time should be compulsory. The handlers of any material brought from outside should wash their hands with soap and water/or use sanitizers. There should be no crowds gathering for meetings or discussions. These should be limited to a few key personnel. There should be a Covid committee, in each institution who should have been fully informed about the virus and its behavior. Having full awareness, the committee members can ensure that all employees are informed and that they observe the health rules mentioned above.
The entire staff should be immunized with safe vaccines. I consider the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as unsafe as they are based on the use of mRNA which are composed of viable genetic material alone. This type of vaccine has never been used on humans before and it is uncertain how there mRNA will act once they combine with genetic material in the cells of our bodies. Due to scientific observations and thinking the outcome of the mixture of foreign virus genetic material with human genetic material is unpredictable and may give rise to undesirable genetic changes. This is why the European Union has banned the import of GM (genetically modified) foods. Here this foreign genetic material is being directly injected into our body so that the danger is even greater.
Other vaccines that are on the market are based on accepted vaccine production procedures and are free of these dangers. For instance Sinopharm is whole virus which has been killed so that there is no live matter in its make-up. But it must be remembered that vaccination only prevents the individual from developing severe disease and dying. The vaccinated person can get infected and while developing no symptoms (over 80%) or developing a mild cold like illness (20%) alone. During the infectious period they can infect other people. Thus it is imperative that everyone is given safe vaccine while ensuring that they do not infect any other or get infected by observing the health rules against virus transmission. If the work in the work place, factory or office is organized in this way then the Covid challenge is minimized or even nullified. Then it will be possible for all industries to function despite the “new normal challenges”. Once these precautions have been taken in all work places industry could return to normal working conditions.
In Sri Lanka the plantation industry employees are very vulnerable due to their poor housing conditions. These employees and their families, which include persons over 60 years of age as well as those with co-morbidities (the vulnerable group) are in danger.
People living in the “line rooms”, which have several families crowded together, are prone to get infected, with severe Covid disease affecting the vulnerable group. The Government must take urgent action to separate the families by temporarily moving them to individual family housing, and proceed to intensify their housing construction programme.
Another factor related to the Covid pandemic is the fact that a significant amount of the labour force elsewhere went back to their villages and have not returned. One factor is that some of them fear that they may be exposed to Covid infection if they return to work. The lack of labour has affected major manufacturing industries in Sri Lanka as well as abroad affecting the manufacturing sector in particular globally. This has delayed economic recovery. The government health authorities may need to look into the question of helping these industries to recover by removing the fear complex among the employees by health education programmes.
An important aspect is to change the behavior pattern of people throughout the country to understand the true nature of the virus and the effect of getting infected so that people will overcome the fear complex that has arisen as a result of the frequent shutdowns. A result of this situation is that the majority of the people have got poorer and are facing economic problems which are even worse than the Covid threat. This is the problem of hunger. Latest figures indicate that about 60% of the Sri Lankan population is living below the poverty line and there are many people who have to manage with only one proper meal per day. The level of malnutrition too has increased and is a little above 18%. This means that nearly one out of every five children under five years of age is suffering from malnutrition. They will grow up to be shorter, thinner and worst of all their mental development will be retarded. The other children too will be affected but to a lesser extent. This augers badly for our future generation.
Another factor that has been the outcome of the Covid problem is the disruption of the education system. The children have suffered by missing about two years of schooling with serious consequences. Some of them have developed mental problems. A majority have lost the habit of regular schooling. Some of the children at higher grades have been badly affected and their preparation for critical examinations has been disrupted. Some of the children due to idleness have been corrupted and even turned to consumption of addictive drugs.
In my view the problem of hunger should receive first priority and money should be devoted to ensuring that people get adequate nutrition. I would like to suggest that highways and other development projects that are not essential be delayed and the money diverted to ensure that everybody gets adequate nutrition. The successful solution to the causal factor for the high cost of living is to by-pass the whole chain of profiteering middleman. This can be done by adopting a new economic system that is gathering momentum in both developed countries, specially in Europe, and in developing countries as well. eg. Argentina.
This is the concept of the “Solidarity Economy”. The basic idea is that all institutions that are running at a loss, both government and private, should be made into companies that belong to the employees. This entitles them not only to get their salaries but also everyone has one share in the company. In this way the profit is divided equally. Where this has been done there has been a conversion of loss into profit for the enterprise. A good example relevant to Sri Lanka is what has been achieved in Kerala, India. e.g. Sixty three hectares of tea owned by TATA’s (one of India’s leading enterprises) was running at a loss. The government took back the land and ran it on the solidarity principle.
One of the members of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Agriculture Committee, who has retired from the post of General Manager of the State Plantation Cooperation (SPC), visited Kerala and gave us a report. Where TATA’s had failed, under the new setup the tea plantations were running at a good profit and the employees were happy. The idea of being the owners while they were also the employees had caused a big change in their mental attitude. They did not return from work by mid-day but went on until evening. All robbing and other illegal activities had stopped.
The Employee’s Council had chosen professional managers on merit (not on relationship and personal factors that have corrupted Indian society). I wish to propose that the plantation industry and all loss making government and private enterprises in Sri Lanka too turn to the solidarity principle. This can be applied to farmer organizations as well, so as to by-pass the middlemen who have them caught in a debt trap and exploit them, so that they do not get a proper price for their paddy and vegetables. These farmer solidarity organizations can deal directly with the solidarity shops set-up island wide. Initially it may be wise to make use of Government wholesale establishments in the agricultural sector like the Paddy Marketing Board, CWE and Sathosa to facilitate the process.
Globally too there has been considerable disruption of industry due to Covid. In particular the shutdown in China has led to the shortage of manufactured goods. China and many Eastern countries took to the manufacturing of goods, supported by outsourcing from the developed countries, due to their cheap labour and lower production costs. Now as a result of Covid, the USA and most developed countries that had earlier shifted to the service industries as the mainstay of their economies were dependent on goods which could be obtained cheaper from countries like China.
The result has been that with the Covid shutdown in China these countries have now had to restore their manufacturing capabilities to produce the goods that they need but cannot import from China. This tendency has also had some impact on developing countries like India. Therefore in both developed and developing countries there is a tendency to restore or develop their manufacturing industries to achieve some degree of self-sufficiency.
Globally there is an economic crisis which has been exaggerated by the Covid 19 pandemic. This economic downturn is continuing and having an adverse effect on global trade. The drop in trade has led to an adverse impact on shipping and transport by air globally. The disruption of shiping and flight schedules has led to the disruption in global trade. This has affected both developed countries as well as developing countries, with the effect being greater on the latter. Items required for industries are behind schedule and supply chains have been disrupted. This disruption of trade associated with the impact on the global transport system has badly affected manufacturing industries worldwide.
The agriculture industry has also encountered many problems during this Covid period. Much of the problems are the result of the monopoly situation which has affected availability of rice and vegetables. With the reluctance of the Government to intervene on behalf of the farmers and consumers the situation has been exploited by ruthless mill owners and traders to raise prices sky high. In a situation where people are without a source of income the high price of food has been a major factor that has led to fall in the nutritional status of the people.
The fact that they were suffering from serious health problems like kidney disease, cancer etc. due to the use of toxic chemicals received a sympathetic response from our President. During the time of the Chandrika Bandaranaike presidency I reacted in the same way when she made me the Chairman of a committee to identify the causes of these illnesses among farmers. I too made the same suggestion about shifting to organic farming but no action was taken. I am glad that the President has taken a firm decision to do away with the use of harmful chemicals in agriculture. But I would appeal to him to make the transition a gradual one so that there is minimal disruption.
In order to conform with the subject title given to me I have laid emphasis on the main causal factor to be the Covid 19 pandemic and its economic and social impact. The impact may last for a shorter or longer period depending on the duration of the pandemic. Once the pandemic is over it will take considerable time to restore normalcy. This may vary from country to country and from town to village. What I have said above may also vary accordingly. As a scientist I can only generalize but future events and outcomes may confirm or contradict what I had said above. Only time will tell.
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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