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What is to be done?

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One does not have to read Marx to understand that when the seething discontent of a powerful yet submerged class is unaddressed, the anger and the agony tend to congeal to outbursts of extremist violence

 

In October 2000, at the height of the leadership struggles within Sihala Urumaya, Malinda Seneviratne, in a response to Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, wrote that a Saffron Ocean might not be such a bad idea if that’s what it would take to destroy Eelamist myth making. To be fair by Dr. Dayan, in his first piece he referred to a Saffron Wave, not a Saffron Ocean. Linguistic theatrics aside though, the argument was clear: at the time the only pragmatic way you could attack Eelamism and win the support of the people was by caving in to the demands of priests in politics. 


19 years later, those demands have gained in strength. At what or whose expense, though? At the expense of the war perhaps, given that it was the rallies, the protests, the demonstrations, and the consciousness raising exercises by radical monks which mobilised the people to vote the UNP out, the SLFP in, and enable a paradigm shift in the government’s attitude to the war. Mahinda Rajapaksa was thus a creature of these nationalist forces, as much as he was a creature of politics who could tap into and manipulate those forces to his advantage. It worked both ways. 


Contrary to popular belief, Buddhist monks were never as embracive of extremism (of the rightwing, fanatical variety) as they are now. There was a time when becoming an extremist meant being radicalised, which strictly speaking isn’t the same thing: there is a fine line that divides activist monks like Yakkaduwe Pragnarama from the racially-driven activism and extremism of modern day monks. 


This rupture between the one and the other, as scholars such as H.L. Seneviratne have pointed out, was in one sense a consequence of a rupture between conservative and activist priests: in Seneviratne’s view, between those aligned with colonial rule and those opposed to it. Once colonialism passed, the generation that followed the activist monks turned to other forms of activism: of the racial, chauvinist form. 


Of course, there are reasons for that as well. 


One does not have to read Marx to understand that when the seething discontent of a powerful yet submerged class is unaddressed, the anger and the agony tend to congeal to outbursts of extremist violence. One has to read Marx, however, and scholars who followed Marx’s reading of history to get beyond the crass reading of such outbursts as mob violence. It takes an Eric Hobsbawm to draw up a link between rising bread prices and the storming of Bastille; it takes a Marx to identify the composition of those who fought the July Monarchy; closer to home, it takes an academic like Kumari Jayawardena to go beyond an ethnicised reading of the 1915 riots. 


Marx called them the “lumpenproletariat”: elements of society divorced from the relations of production. Idle, unproductive and committed to neither the proletariat nor the bourgeoisie, they were up for grabs by whoever could sell them the biggest promises. This unproductive underclass were neither Left nor Right, but could be entranced by those who gave them the biggest “morsels.” Later, trying to prove they could be brought within the orbit of production relations, Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon argued that they were neither victims of capitalism nor panderers to mob behaviour, and formed an important part of revolutions. 


But if they were neither of these, who were they? They were, as Marx contended, propertyless and unemployed, and their methods of securing a living “placed them outside the productive process.” It is easy to consider this class as subscribing to progressive ideals when in fact they were parasitic adjuncts; once those movements worked to their logical conclusions, the lumpenproletariat, having achieved what they wanted, would hijack those movements and force in their worldview. Hence, Marx and Engels viewed them with derision: in the Communist Manifesto they described them as a “rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society.” 


In other words they were remnants of the old order, and were to be found in every society struggling to untangle itself of regressive, rightwing establishments. In fact, more often than not, they tend to have once been appendages to those same rightwing establishments. It’s rather difficult to claim that what was true for 19th century France can be true for 20th century Asia, because cultural configurations between the two societies continue to be starkly different. And yet, the similarities between the two, though unclear, continue to linger. 


The lumpenproletariat of 19th century France, supporting either side of the divide to their advantage, seems to have met a match in the lumpenproletariat of postcolonial Asia who, dissatisfied with native successors of the colonial administrators, sought a political movement more amenable to their interests. 


In Sri Lanka, those legatees, in the UNP, were upended by those articulators of less moderate position, the SLFP, at the cost of revolutionists, the Trotskyites and the Communists. In this, the revolutionists unfortunately had to choose. They could not go back to the moderates in the UNP who were the scions of the capitalist class. And for some time, they could not go to the SLFP either. 


The 1956 election was not the victory of socialists, as Denzil Peiris so aptly pointed out. It was the victory of the five great forces, and it represented the maturing of an intermediate class which had suffered economically and socially under the British. The lumpenproletariat in them remained connected to both the UNP and the SLFP (as they continue to do today). Culturally conservative, averse to revolution and opposed to reform, these elements of the 1956 victory gradually, over the years, propped up the rightwing of the SLFP – the single biggest tragedy that party faced. 

 

Contrary to popular belief, Buddhist monks were never as embracive of extremism (of the rightwing, fanatical variety) as they are now

 

Mervyn de Silva, surveying the 1971 insurrection, called it the “end of welfare politics” – or the failure of the Old Left to satisfy the aspirations of a radicalised younger generation. Instead of satisfying those aspirations, compromises with and capitulations to the right became the order of the day, until the aftermath of 1956 emancipated, not the common man, but the leaders of the communities from which the common man emerged – not the same thing. 


All these elements – the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat – have in Sri Lanka tended to vote for and select the wrong choice whenever they have voted in unison. J.R. Jayewardene led to July 1980 and, worse, July 1983; Chandrika Kumaratunga, winning by the largest margin for any Executive President, led to the capture of Jaffna and five years later the surrender of it; Ranil Wickremesinghe led to Athurugiriya  2002 (months after becoming Prime Minister); Mahinda Rajapaksa led to the end of the war, but also the bifurcation of extremist politics after the elimination of the LTTE between Buddhist chauvinism and Islamist fanaticism. 


Today, tellingly, elements of both forms of extremism can be found in the Rajapaksa camp, the Wickremesinghe camp, even the Sirisena camp. I believe this should take us back to the question Lenin once, sagaciously, asked: “What is to be done?” Similarly we can ask, what is to be done: do we continue with this fringe, or do we jettison it? Given its history of jettisoning the progressive content of virtually every revolution we’ve seen here, I do not believe we can afford to choose the first option. 

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