In memory of Stephane Hessel (1917-2013), author of ‘Time for Outrage’
- By Dr Dayan Jayatilleka
This year and month mark the 130th death anniversary of Karl Marx. 2013 also marks the 60th anniversary of the assault on Moncada led by Fidel Castro and of his address ‘History Will Absolve Me’. It is then an appropriate year for any Left party to take a long hard look at the road it has travelled and the path ahead.
The past returns to haunt political movements just as they do individuals. In this sense the past is part of the fabric of the present. This is why an accurate evaluation of one’s past is as important for a political movement as it is for a person. It seems that neither the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) nor the breakaway Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) have an entirely accurate diagnosis of their collective past, without which their present and future standing is negatively affected.
" Perhaps the JVP and FSP should learn from successful Left movements in Latin America which have not renounced in any way, but have gradually put to rest, the memories of their founder-leaders "
Under pressure perhaps from the FSP breakaway, the JVP has concluded that its support for Gen. Sarath Fonseka at the Presidential election was an error. Though it was arguably an error for Gen. Fonseka to have contested the first post-war Presidential election against a popular incumbent President, instead of focusing on the correct target of entering parliament and making his presidential bid the next time around, it was less obvious that, given the choices available, the JVP erred in supporting him. The JVP’s error was perhaps in leaving the ranks of the ruling coalition before the war had been won. Karu Jayasuriya probably made the same mistake. This permitted the monopolisation of the legitimacy of the historic military victory.
The FSP’s stance appears to be that the JVP was in error to have entered coalitions with bourgeois parties. Not only does this indicate that they should re-read Lenin’s text ‘Two Tactics’, but that they have turned their back on the most successful political period and achievement of the JVP, namely the experiment of the Provisional Government with Chandrika Kumaratunga and the subsequent 39 seats they won at the parliamentary elections. Here again, the JVP’s error was a different and opposite one: to have quit that Provisional Government prematurely. If the JVP and /or FSP are to break out of a politico-ideological ghetto, they will have to retrace their path to those successful episodes of radical democratic politics.
They will also have to revisit their collective behaviour during the latter half of the 1980s which remains a social memory (not least among UNPers at the grassroots) and constitutes polemical ammunition for their political critics. Especially important is their lethal reaction to perceived competition: Vijaya Kumaratunga’s Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP) and the smaller far left groups. That sectarian reaction and the inevitable counter-reaction benefited the state and damaged all players on the Left, when the option of a united front (as in Central America) or at least a political ceasefire was always available. The sole, sadly ephemeral episode of a correct united front tactic by the JVP was the five-party Left Bloc of 1980, and is an experiment that should become a model.
Perhaps the JVP and FSP should learn from successful Left movements in Latin America which have not renounced in any way, but have gradually put to rest, the memories of their founder-leaders and the reputations of their violent pasts, which in most cases were far less blemished than that of the JVP. In short, they no longer evoke the ghosts and have learnt to let go and move forward, thereby presenting their enemies with a smaller, moving target. The JVP and FSP should perhaps also re-interrogate their past and rediscover other heroes and potential leaders less tarnished than Wijeweera (such as Sarath Wijesinha of Kegalle).
There is in Sri Lanka today a huge opportunity for the Left. The current UNP is unable to play its role as a dynamic opposition and alternative government, and its Reformist dissidents seem unwilling to do so, while the SLFP too has many disaffected members at all levels. This permits a smart, strong, ethical (i.e. Gramscian) Left to make deep inroads into the mass bases of mainly the UNP and secondarily the SLFP. Thus there is an open door (in the case of the UNP base) and a half open window (with respect to the SLFP) for the Left to walk or climb through. However, it will simply not do for the Left to expect the masses who vote for these mainstream parties to turn sharply leftwards and come through that opening towards it. It is the Left that will have to move through the portal, repositioning and partially reinventing itself as a radical democratic option so as to win over these masses of citizens.
When the Russian Marxists grasped that the liberal bourgeoisie was unable to play the role of standing up to the hereditary family based autocracy as its French counterpart so famously had, they resolved that the working class and its parties had to do step in, giving leadership to the peasantry. Given the victories and dramatic advances in recent years of the Left in Latin America and in Greece, there is almost no limit to what the JVP and its dissident spin-off the FSP can achieve in democratic politics, if – and it is a very big IF indeed—they make the right moves, in a spirit that is recognised by the masses as being sincere, deep-going and irreversible.
To put it at its most starkly challenging, if the Left in any society is to achieve its fullest potential, it must fulfil at least two criteria: (a) it must represent something new, hopeful and credible and (b) be perceived by the people to be the best elements among the citizenry, and thus an authentic vanguard. This is how the Left can outweigh the enormous economic and material strengths of the Right. When the people look for hope, they will look to the Left only if that formation is more attractive and credible an alternative than the ultra nationalist or conservative Right.
The Left must represent a new, fresh spirit; a spirit of hope and credible possibility. It must represent such a spirit in order to replicate and multiply that spirit among the citizenry. This must not be the spirit of fanaticism and conflict—of which the country has experienced plenty--though it must be a spirit of righteous ethical indignation against blatant injustice and lack of strategic foresight of the ruling elite.
While the Left must never reduce its appeal to issues of economics, economics must play a prominent part in its public pedagogy. The citizenry must be educated as to why things are as bad as they are, why they are suffering, why the suffering is not inevitable by any means and how things could be much better.
The Left in Latin America and Greece surged to the forefront when the economic crisis hit. In Sri Lanka the socioeconomic crisis is surely coming and thus also the need for socioeconomic democracy.
The crisis is as much external and ethnic as it will be economic. The Left must inspire confidence that it can do what the post-independence and post-war ruling elites have been unable to, namely to build unity in diversity, construct a united democratic nation of our many communities. This is the only foundation of a strong state able to resist separatist impulses and encroachment on national sovereignty. However the JVP must not repeat its old mistake of confusing paranoia for anti-imperialism or adulterating the latter with the former. Not everything it rightly opposes (e.g. re-merger) needs to be an imperialist conspiracy and the fact that some action or phenomenon may result in benefiting external critics or foes does not mean that it has an external cause. For its part, the FSP must learn that ‘anti-capitalist’, ‘anti-neo-liberal’, ‘anti-Empire’ and ‘anti-globalisation’ are far from identical, and that there are different models of capitalism and projects of globalisation.
In the face of the crisis the Left must represent the talent of the educated and the energies of the youth. But the question is: what kind of youth? When the Left fails to give a self-critical accounting of its past and is also seen to defend those who engage in socially repugnant practices such as intra-campus violence and university ‘ragging’ (‘hazing’), it allows itself to be depicted as the Sinhalese were after July ’83, because the failure to differentiate oneself by standing up against something and standing in the forefront of opposition to it, makes it possible for powerful enemies to tar one with the brush of complicity.
Finally, if the Left is to project itself as the formation of the educated Lankan youth (in the island and the Diaspora); intelligent, honest, and dedicated, with hope in the future, credible answers for the crisis and an attractive vision for the country; it must ensure that their leaders who are the public face and ‘brand ambassadors’ of the Movement are the mirror or embodiment of that image. The Left must get not only the politics but also the optics right.