Crisis of the new left and the new left intelligentsia

(Part II)

21 December 2019 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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What we needed was a rational revolutionary polarity, but what we got was an ethnic struggle built on “irrational appeals and historical myths” I believe part of the blame can be dished to the Old Left itself, for being unable to take note of the post-1956 shift which produced the boys who’d bomb, main, kill, and be killed 30 years later

I think much of the issue stems from the fact that intellectuals, for the most, either misread history or choose to ignore its implications

 

The JVP which received the support of literary critics, artists, intellectuals, and activists this year has lost the support it desperately needs now: that of the people. The shrinkage has in one sense been inevitable, partly because of the JVP and partly because of electoral forces outside the control of the JVP. Within a political framework like the one we have in Sri Lanka, to hope for a party like the JVP to secure second place is indeed wishful thinking. But it’s not the fact of it coming third that really shocks one, it’s the margin by which its power has been outstripped by both old and new parties. What can explain this? My guess is that part of the problem and the fault can be sourced to the kind of people supporting the party, the kind of statements and remarks they make, and the image of the party it built up through those statements and remarks. After all, in an age where everything gets shared, people take care to get revenge on parties at the ballot box.   


The JVP has got the courage to ward off populist pressures. Paradoxically, it hasn’t got the courage to take heed of those pressures. Even at the height of the yahapalana regime before its descent, somewhere in late 2016, it chose to go silent over the economic fallout. Back then there was no fuel price formula, no scaling down of government enterprises, no power cuts, no strikes, and so on. But the seeds of discontent were there: salary anomalies, rising debt levels, rank incompetence among ministers and their personnel, and pacification of foreign interests by a regime which would go on to cosponsor a resolution against the country at Geneva. 


These were opportunities, and they could have easily been taken by a radical outfit at a time when the official opposition, a party known for its tacit support of separatist causes, went silent on any issue other .than those which had a direct bearing on their community. The JVP had an opportunity there, and 
yet it missed it.   

 

The JVP has the courage to ward off populist pressures. But not the courage to take heed of those pressures. Even at the height of the yahapalana regime, it chose to go silent over the economic fallout

I think the problem has to do with its intellectual base. In any movement that tries to mobilise popular resistance the easiest path it can choose is that of cultural resistance. This is why the JVP, not the Old Left under Vijaya Kumaratunga, and the LTTE, not the Eelam Left, garnered crucial mass support from their respective communities in the 1980s. Working class consciousness has not, as of yet, managed to transcend or cut through ethnic fissures, a fact which became more and more evident after the advent of the open economy in which ethnic and cultural cleavages opened up with the ever widening gap between favoured and unfavoured economic groups. 


The problem of the Old Left was that it didn’t take heed of the economic basis for the chauvinism and the xenophobia among southern youth at the time, just as the problem of the New Left was that it took economic depression among those youth as sufficient just cause or casus belli for its terror campaigns.   


Sri Lanka could not, and did not, take to the path of the Latin American revolutionaries because the working class had thought of itself in terms of ethnic identity. Thus in a context where identity had consumed revolutionary instincts, the fight was going to be between two ethnic groups (Sinhala and non-Sinhala), and not two economic groups.   


Comparisons between Central and Latin America on the one hand and Sri Lanka on the other are always going to be faulty; as Dayan Jayatilleka once observed, it was always a paradox as to how capitalist growth and authoritarianism could not produce an indigenous liberation struggle in Sri Lanka. What we needed was a rational revolutionary polarity, but what we got was an ethnic struggle built on “irrational appeals and historical myths.” I believe part of the blame can be dished to the Old Left itself, for being unable to take note of the post-1956 shift which produced the boys who’d bomb, main, kill, and be killed 30 years later. Even in the realm of Marxist literature there was little that these boys could understand in their languag e; this is partly how the JVP of those years could contort Marxist theory.   


If prior to their entry to parliamentary politics they worked, fought, and rebelled with a Marxist head and cultural heart, in the decades following their entry they chose to let go of their heart more and more without really letting go of it. The JVP that exists today is locked into a paradox no radical leftist movement can afford to have: its popular base is one that’s built on identity assertion and its intellectual and academic base is one seen to be hostile to identity assertion. 


The perception may be unfair and it most probably is, but it’s one that’s stuck on with the JVP ever since it broke ranks with Mahinda Rajapaksa, ceded the Sinhala Buddhist populist space to him and the JHU, and attempted to carve a middle ground in a country where the political fight was always going to be between, not capitalist and anti-capitalist, but Sinhala and anti-Sinhala. In this fight, particularly in the build-up to the 2015 general elections, the JVP was seen to be favouring the UNP rather than the Joint Opposition. Its intellectual base did nothing to get rid of that perception.   

 

I think much of the issue stems from the fact that intellectuals, for the most, either misread history or choose to ignore its implications


I think much of the issue stems from the fact that intellectuals, for the most, either misread history or choose to ignore its implications. The critique of the JVP in the 80s was that it pandered to the ethnic question over class struggle and in turn to chauvinism and xenophobia. The JVP earned this unlovely sobriquet because of the diatribes that it wrote against minority interest groups which were seen to have gained disproportionately from the economic and social policies of the J. R. Jayewardene regime: Jaffna and Colombo Tamils, Moors, Borahs, Parsees, Chettiars, and so on. 

In this the fault was more with the means used to resolve the problem rather than the problem itself: as scholars like Kumari Jayawardena have noted, these groups were historically more privileged than the two most oppressed groups in the colonial (particularly British) era, the estate Tamils and the Kandyan Sinhala peasantry. It is notable that the first call for federalism came not from northern Jaffna Tamils, but from Kandyan Sinhalese; the call for federalism from Jaffna would take three decades and that because of, inter alia, the belief that the government was trying to reverse policies which had favoured the maritime regions over the interior in the colonial era.   


In a country reeling from colonial overlordship, the formerly privileged get entrenched once more with the restatement of a compradore-mercantilist economy, which is what we saw at least in patches after 1978. The resentment of the Sinhala Buddhist petty bourgeoisie hence soon found an outlet through chauvinism and xenophobia. Prior to 1948 the colonial State had put up enough and more fetters which had disabled these groups from asserting their strength and anger; free of those shackles, the post-1956 generation rose up in revolt through the banner of ethnic identity. Unfortunately, though the goal was to correct a historical wrong, the means resorted to by the JVP and its cohorts were, if not misconceived, unsound and downright dangerous: it is one thing, after all, to elevate a depressed group, and quite another to try to do so by fermenting racialism and tribalism.   


The problem with the anti-JVP Left, on the other hand, was that it repeatedly and erroneously failed to take note of economic rifts rooted in ethnicity; by the late 80s sections of the Old Left had joined the NGO circuit, and even the left intelligentsia were seen to be targeting Sinhala Buddhist consciousness in a way that alienated the more sensitive and nationalist sections of the Sinhala Buddhist community. Briefly, if the JVP took the reality of historical and economic wrongs to a community as an excuse to ferment racialism in the name of rectifying those wrongs, then the anti-JVP took the threat of such racialism as an excuse to condemn the JVP as a Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist party (when it was not, as the distinction it made between northern and Jaffna Tamil bourgeoisie on the one hand and estate Tamils on the other showed). With such misunderstandings did the country enter a war which led The Economist to call Sri Lanka “the bloodiest place on earth.”   


Today the JVP is housed by petit bourgeois artists, academics, and intellectuals who make in a more nuanced way the mistake that the anti-JVP bloc of the Old Left did in the 80s. The JVP had rationalised the national question in terms of economic rifts between different communities; this led them to make certain pronouncements on such issues as Indian interventionism that they let go once they entered the parliamentary democratic framework. On the other hand those intellectuals, artists, and academics continue to make the same misassumption that sections of the Old Left did: misconstrue the historical, economic, and social implications of the National Question. The only real difference is that they are no longer against the JVP, but with it. And the JVP, for its part, continues to dally with them without wholly letting go of its nationalist past. Therein lies the tragedy.

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