Reconsidering the 13th Amendment
by C.A. Chandraprema
The government has made an official statement to the effect that it’s reconsidering the 19th Amendment but no such official statement has been made with regard to the 13th Amendment. However opposition politicians have expressed the view that the government is trying to use its two thirds majority to do away with the 13th Amendment as well.
The government does not have to take the trouble to do anything to get rid of the 13th Amendment. It has been tied up in knots by the yahapalana political parties including the Tamil National Alliance so effectively that all that the government has to do to get rid of it for good, is to do nothing. If the government is to restore the provincial councils system, they will need a two thirds majority to do away with its predecessor’s 2017 Act which sent the PC system into the limbo that it is in at present.
When the provincial councils system was functioning there was the oft heard complaint that it had not been made fully functional i.e. that the police and land powers of the provincial councils had not been implemented as originally intended. This has been a major bone of contention during the past three decades with the Tamil National Alliance calling for its full implementation and even demanding that the Sri Lankan government should go beyond the 13th Amendment in order to satisfy Tamil aspirations. One thing that we have to realize is that like so many other aspects of the 1978 Constitution, the 13th Amendment is a very badly drafted piece of legislation. When police and land powers were included in the 13th Amendment, they were copied wholesale from the Indian constitution with no consideration for its practicability in Sri Lanka.
In India, what has been said in the text of the Constitution in relation to the powers over land of the center and the states has been defined and interpreted by the Supreme Court. In the landmark 1962 case, State Of West Bengal vs Union of India, a majority judgment concluded that the structure of the Indian Union is centralized, with the States occupying a secondary position. Hence the Center possessed the requisite powers to acquire properties belonging to States. The Indian SC observed in this case that even under Constitutions which are truly federal and full sovereignty of the States is recognized, the power to utilize property of the State for Union purposes is not denied. Therefore the power of the Union to legislate in respect of property situated in the States remains unrestricted. This judgment was delivered in 1962. The provincial councils system was introduced in Sri Lanka in 1987. If the text dealing with land powers in the 13th Amendment had been formulated on the lines laid down in State of West Bengal vs Union of India, the Northern Tamil political parties would have had more realistic expectations with regard to powers over land. Instead, the text of the 13th Amendment on land powers followed the text of the Indian Constitution thus making it necessary for Sri Lanka to reinvent the wheel as it were.
In 2013, Sri Lanka finally got its own version of State Of West Bengal vs Union of India which defined the extent of the land powers mentioned in the 13th Amendment. The 2013 case of Solaimuthu Rasu, vs The State Plantations Corporation was heard by a three member bench of the Supreme Court made up of Chief Justice Mohan Pieris, K.Sripavan, and Eva Wanasundera and each judge delivered separate judgments while coming to the same conclusion. Justice Sripavan observed in his judgment that ‘land’ is a Provincial Council subject only to the extent set out in Appendix II (of the 9th schedule of the Constitution). The Constitutional limitations imposed by the legislature shows that in the exercise of its legislative powers, no exclusive power is vested in the Provincial Councils with regard to the subject of ‘land’… a Provincial Council can utilize ‘State Land’ only upon it being made available to it by the Government. It therefore implies that a Provincial Council cannot appropriate to itself without the government making state land available to such Council. Such state land can be made available by the Government only in respect of a Provincial Council subject.
Justice Sripavan explained further that the only power cast upon the Provincial Council is to administer, control and utilize such state land in accordance with the laws passed by Parliament and the statutes made by the Provincial Council… Even after the establishment of Provincial Councils in 1987, state land continued to be vested in the Republic and disposition could be carried out only in accordance with Article 33(d) of the Constitution read with 1:3 of Appendix II to the Ninth Schedule to the Constitution. Despite such Supreme Court interpretations given in India and Sri Lanka, the Tamil lobby in Sri Lanka continues to demand exclusive land powers that even Tamil Nadu does not possess. They may point to the text of the 13th Amendment, but never to the interpretations given to that text in India or even in Sri Lanka. People pretend that they have neither seen nor heard of any interpretation given with regard to land powers and we keep going round and round in circles.
When it comes to police powers however, what the 13th Amendment has is what India actually has in practice. The first item on the Provincial Council List of powers is Police and Public order. The extent of these powers are set out in an Appendix to the 13th Amendment according to which the Sri Lanka police force was to be divided into a National Division (including Special Units) and nine Provincial Divisions. The National division would have jurisdiction only over 11 specified areas such as offenses against the State, election offenses, offenses relating to currency, offenses committed against a public officer, a judicial officer, or a Member of Parliament, offenses relating to state property and international crimes etc. Other than such specified offenses, all other day to day police work such as crimes, traffic, drugs, fraud and maintenance of public order etc. were to be carried out by the provincial police forces.
Thus what we were to have under the 13th Amendment were in effect nine different police forces combined with a national police force all crammed into an area the size of one of India’s smaller states. A police system designed for a sub-continent is applied to a country only a little bigger than Himachal Pradesh. Furthermore the creation of separate police forces for each province would have given rise to a Tamil police force in the north, a Muslim and Tamil police force in the east and Sinhala police forces in the rest of the country – a sure recipe for disaster given Sri Lanka’s history of ethnic conflict. No leader in the past three decades since the 13th Amendment was passed has even considered implementing the police powers laid down in the 13th Amendment. Moreover, these police powers have been included in the 13th Amendment in a situation where some of the most important safeguards in the Indian Constitution against separatism have been left out.
The missing safeguards
The Indian President’s veto power over state legislation: Even though some Indian states are much bigger than most nation states in the world, the Indian President can veto any legislation that comes to him from the states. According to Articles 200 and 201 of the Indian Constitution, When a Bill has been passed by the Legislative Assembly of a State it has to be presented to the Governor for assent. The Governor can either give his assent or reserve it for the consideration of the President. The President can either assent to the Bill or withhold assent therefrom and he does not have to give any explanation as to why he withholds assent. He does not have to consult the Supreme Court or any other authority. This veto power is exercised entirely at the discretion of the Indian President.
In terms of Sri Lanka’s 13th Amendment however, every statute made by a Provincial Council has to be presented to the Governor for his assent, and the Governor may either assent to the statute or reserve it for reference by the President to the Supreme Court, for a determination on the constitutionality of the statute. If the Supreme Court determines that the statute is consistent with the provisions of the Constitution, the Governor is mandatorily required to assent to the statute. The Sri Lankan President is thus only a post box through whom the Governor sends the statute to the Supreme Court and receives its opinion! The Sri Lankan Executive President has no discretionary power over statutes passed by the provincial councils even though the supposedly ceremonial Indian President has such powers.
Taking over state legislative power in the national interest: According to Article 249 if the Indian Constitution, if the Council of States (the upper house of Indian parliament – the Rajya Sabha) has declared by resolution supported by not less than two-thirds of the members present and voting that it is necessary or expedient in the national interest that Parliament should make laws with respect to any matter enumerated in the State List, it shall be lawful for Parliament to make laws for the whole or any part of the territory of India with respect to that matter while the resolution remains in force. Such A resolution shall remain in force for a period not exceeding one year, and so long as a resolution approving the continuance in force of such resolution is passed, it can continue in force for a further period of one year. This takeover of legislative power can continue indefinitely for as long as is required. (It’s important to note that it’s only the upper house of parliament that needs to vote on this matter and that too only with a two thirds majority of Members who may be present on that day, and not a two thirds majority of the whole number of Members of the Rajya Sabha.)
Take over of state legislative power when a state of emergency is in operation: According to Article 250 of the Indian Constitution, Parliament shall, while a Proclamation of Emergency is in operation, have power to make laws for the whole or any part of the territory of India with respect to any of the matters enumerated in the State List. A law made by Parliament under this provision will lapse six months after the Proclamation of Emergency has ceased to operate.
We have to recognize that what has been dished out to us in the form of the 13th Amendment is something of a much lower order than that which exists in India. For example, under Article 353 of the Indian Constitution, when a Proclamation of Emergency is in operation, the executive power of the Union extends to the giving of directions to any State as to the manner in which the executive power thereof is to be exercised and further, the power of Parliament to make laws includes the power to make laws with regard to matters that are not on the Union list (i.e. items on the State list). However according to Article 154J of the Sri Lankan Constitution introduced by the 13th Amendment which is the equivalent of Article 353 of the Indian Constitution, when a state of emergency is in operation, the President may give directions to any Governor as to the manner in which the executive power exercisable by the Governor is to be exercised; but Parliament will not have the power to legislate on matters coming under the provincial councils list!
Shortchanged at every turn
It’s only with regard to the ‘President’s rule’ provisions that we appear to have got what the Indian Constitution has, but even that is merely an appearance and we have been shortchanged there was well. Article 356 of the Indian Constitution states that if the President, on receipt of a report from the Governor of a State or otherwise, is satisfied that a situation has arisen in which the Government of the State cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the President may by Proclamation (a) assume to himself all or any of the functions of the Government of the State and all or any of the powers exercisable by the Governor and (b) declare that the powers of the Legislature of the State shall be exercisable by the authority of Parliament;
The equivalent provision in the Sri Lankan Constitution which was introduced by the 13th Amendment – Article 154L – states that if the President, on receipt of a report from the Governor of the Province or otherwise, is satisfied that a situation has arisen in which the administration of the Province cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the President may by Proclamation – (a) assume to himself all or any of the functions of the administration of the Province and all or any of the powers vested in, or exercisable by, the Governor and (b) declare that the powers of the Provincial Council shall be exercisable by, or under the authority of Parliament. Thus we see that the President’s rule provisions in the Indian Constitution and Sri Lanka’s 13th Amendment are almost identical. The difference however is that in India, President’s rule can remain in force continuously for a maximum period of three years, but in Sri Lanka President’s rule can remain in force only for a maximum of one year.
What was stated above was just the most obvious instances where Sri Lanka has been shortchanged. Closer scrutiny of the Indian Constitution and the way it operates, will reveal many more instances. If the Sri Lankan President had veto power over all statutes passed by the provincial councils, if the declaration of an emergency automatically gave the Sri Lanka Parliament the power to legislate on any matter coming under the provincial councils list, and if there was a system whereby Parliament could take over the legislative power of any province in the event of perceived danger as stipulated in Article 250 of the Indian Constitution, the entire attitude towards the devolution of power in this country would have been very different. As of now, people in Sri Lanka see devolution as a kind of creeping separatism, and they are right because the demands that we hear most often are for powers that even the Indian states do not possess.
The 13th Amendment was drafted before India got into a confrontation with the LTTE and before Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. That was a time when some officers of the Indian army even thought that the LTTE would not turn on them because the latter had been trained and given refuge in India. Furthermore, because Sri Lanka was a small country, some would have thought that fewer safeguards would be required here. The Sri Lankan side may have thought that because India was guaranteeing the implementation of the peace accord, nothing can go wrong and they may have thought that a downsized version of India’s President’s rule provisions was all that was needed in terms of constitutional safeguards against separatism.
Both India and Sri Lanka have learnt many new things since then. Even though the provincial councils system is supposed to be based on the Indian system, we don’t have any of the safeguards that India has. To expect police powers to be implemented in such circumstances is unrealistic. In the opinion of this writer, if legislation is to be passed with a two thirds majority in Parliament to revive the provincial councils system, the same legislation should be used to remove all references to police powers from the provincial councils list in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution for the reasons given above.
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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