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Socialist revolution or bourgeois compromise?

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By Uditha Devapriya

For the oppressed masses of the Third World, the establishment of UNCTAD and the proposal for a New International Economic Order marked the high point of 20th century multilateralism. These coincided with the longest spell of decolonisation recorded in history, in turn fuelled by a spate of bourgeois democratic and Marxist Left alliances in almost every corner of the developing world. Though such alliances did not bring about emancipation for the masses, the experience of the 1960s suggested that radical transformations, for the Global South and the world in general, were in the offing.

Was the Third World wrong in pinning hopes for a fairer world order on the election of bourgeois democratic elites and the realisation of multilateral initiatives? In Sri Lanka two periods of socialist rule, which oversaw vast strides in North-South Dialogue and South-South cooperation, and enacted ambitious land and labour reforms at home, gave way to an endless succession of neoliberal authoritarian administrations, alternating between centre-right reformism and centre-right and rightwing populism.

The argument of Marxist commentators is that this situation would not have arisen if bourgeois national elites did not alienate the Marxist Left, even as they forged alliances with it. That is what happened in Sri Lanka in the 1970s, and it is what happened in Egypt as well: despite its immensely progressive potential, Nasserism ended up liquidating the Communist Party, leading up to the defeat of the Arab-Israeli war and the shameless capitulations to the neoliberal right under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

Unique Sri Lankan experience

The Sri Lankan experience here is both general and unique. Though the contradictions between the Left and the bourgeois democratic centre-left reflected similar contradictions elsewhere in the Third World, particularly in Asia, they were rooted in the dynamics of Sri Lankan society, in particular rural society. Even today, the staunchest critics of the LSSP’s and the Communist Party’s decision to form governments with the SLFP contend that such agreements detracted from the imperatives of socialist revolution, and that the Marxist Left could enter into them only at the cost of its very existence.

Fair as this critique is, it ignores three important considerations. Firstly, the Marxist Left in Sri Lanka lacked a rural agrarian base. As Anil Moonesinghe observed in an interview with Michael Roberts, the LSSP from its inception found itself unable to mobilise rural workers, partly owing to the cultural conditioning of its leadership. The situation was such that by 1956 the Left had the backing of urban workers, while the SLFP had the backing of rural workers. That could only lead to a reconciliation or a rapprochement between these two formations. Necessity proved to be the better part of valour here.

Secondly, the LSSP and Communist Party had to reckon with a more powerful and popular movement in the form of the JVP. The JVP took advantage of an entrenched but frustrated rural petty bourgeoisie. Gamini Keerawalla’s view that its rise coincided with the growth of an intermediate bourgeoisie in the villages is correct: it indicates that the Sri Lankan Left could be threatened by an ultra-Left element, and that, if pushed too far, the latter could evolve into an ultra-Right formation. That is what precisely what happened during the last few years of the J. R. Jayewardene regime, though by then the Old Left had been submerged and repressed so much that it could only watch from the sidelines.

SLFP considered bourgeois democratic

Thirdly, the view that the SLFP was bourgeois democratic and thus incapable of carrying out any revolution, let alone a socialist one, ignored the fact that it was composed of different interest groups and these converged with and diverged from each other on various issues and fronts. More relevantly, unlike Egypt and Indonesia, Sri Lanka remained a parliamentary democracy. That may not have meant much in the larger scheme of things, but it did prove relevant for any party envisaging a radical transformation of society.

It was Sri Lanka’s system of parliamentary democracy and its emphasis on contact between the government and the people, combined with the socialist credentials of the parties in power, which enabled the United Front administration to implement far-reaching reforms like the Workers’ Councils. Yet that did not prevent breakaway factions within the Left, such as the LSSP (R), to denigrate the SLFP as a petty bourgeois formation. The JVP went one step ahead here, calling the SLFP as no different to the capitalist UNP.

The LSSP’s rejoinder to these claims was that the SLFP was not an ordinary petty bourgeois party, but a petty bourgeois party situated in a semi-colonial society, with much potential for change. As Anil Moonesinghe put it, the SLFP contained a reactionary and revolutionary wing: the former included the C. P. de Silva faction and, later, the Felix Dias faction. It was only by coming to terms with these specificities that any viable socialist programme could be enacted and seen to its end – and not just in Sri Lanka.

Amarasekera is right

The SLFP was the logical heir and successor to the Sinhala Maha Sabha, which S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike chose to make a part of the UNP. Gunadasa Amarasekara is correct when he criticises the view of the Sabha as a chauvinistic outfit as unjust and unfair. Both the Sabha and the SLFP gave vent to the cultural aspirations of a community that had been tied to 400 years of colonial rule. Insofar as it spoke to this group, the SLFP possessed an emancipatory potential, which could well have made it a fellow traveller of the Old Left.

To be sure, subsequent events proved that this was not to be. Yes, the SLFP did possess a progressive potential, but then this was not the same as being a progressive party. At its inception it was composed of a myriad of interests, some progressive, others not so, and others conservative and no different to the comprador elites in the UNP they considered to be their foes. Not surprisingly, the party’s victory in 1956 did not usher in a triumph for all these class elements; only a certain bloc therein. Paraphrasing Trotsky, the petty bourgeois shadow gained in size and strength, to the exclusion of more radical elements.

And yet, to wholeheartedly condemn the Left for forging an alliance with the SLFP would be to ignore the three points I have underlined above. More pertinently, it would be to ignore the strides made by the SLFP-LSSP-CP combination in the international sphere, including its contribution to the Non-Aligned Movement, its declaration of an Indian Ocean Peace Zone, and its interventions in UNCTAD and the New International Economic Order.

The breakaway Left, including the LSSP (R), as well as the JVP, had their own views regarding Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. The SLFP, the LSSP, and the CP in unison, by contrast, conceived a more internationalist foreign policy, shaped less by adherence to theory than by the need to establish links with the world. One may contend that the United Front government’s policies privileged expedience over principle here, but as the 1971 uprising showed, these enabled it to garner support almost everywhere, from Moscow to Washington.

The Left’s encounters with the SLFP failed to bring about a socialist revolution in Sri Lanka. There it differed very little from what was happening elsewhere: across much of the Third World, the Marxist Left’s alliances with the bourgeois centre-left provoked a middle class backlash against socialism, enabling the neoliberal right to come to power.

Global scenario

This was propelled by developments taking place on the world stage including the food crisis, the oil shock, and the abandonment of the Gold Standard. The latter, in particular, encouraged Western governments and policymakers to let go of Keynesian prescriptions, leading to a wholesale embracement of neoliberal monetarism which has shaped economic growth paradigms ever since. These developments conspired to wipe out the Marxist Left from parliament, though as Vinod Moonesinghe has correctly pointed out, the groups that broke ground with the LSSP and the Communist Party over their alliances with the SLFP got annihilated long before the fallout of the 1977 election.

Viewed that way, the Marxists’ view of bourgeois democratic parties as reactionary may be justified. Yet it misses well more than a few points. No socialist or radical programme can, or will, be effective unless it takes into account the concrete, dynamic specificities of society, including its social and political structures. This was the Old Left’s primary achievement, and conversely, the breakaway Left’s and the New Left’s primary failure.

The LSSP and the Communist Party cannot be absolved for the stances they took, or rather were compelled to take, over the language issue and the National Question later on. But one should not forget that these parties framed such issues from a progressive standpoint, and that when in power, they saw through a series of radical reforms which were accepted wholeheartedly by the masses of the time, though rejected by a growing middle-class. That these reforms did not reach fruition, and that they were abandoned by successive regimes, should not serve as an indictment on those who authored them.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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