Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Lessons from the 'Junius Pamphlet'

Regi Siriwardena, in his memoir "Working Underground", recounts a conversation he had with Philip Gunawardena. This was in 1942. The conversation was about the (ideological) rift between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin over the latter's support for a centralised party. Siriwardena stated that this could be explained by the social contexts both were placed in: Rosa's being German democracy and Lenin's being Tsarist autocracy.

Notwithstanding that, the rift itself offers a paradox. How could two conceptions of the same ideology not find common ground? More importantly, how can it apply to the present dilemma of not just the Left in Sri Lanka but parties with which it allied itself?

The JVP is "with" the UNP today. Sure, we've heard excuses. "In the name of Democracy!" yells one. "Against a bigger evil!" shouts another. Indeed. It's not about the ideals anymore, folks. It's about votes. Big time. After all, that's what led a JVPer to state that he'd even contest from the UNP to get elected recently!

All this makes makes me think. Makes me want to revisit Rosa Luxemburg's "Junius Pamphlet".

After 1914, Europe was engaged in war. This involved a rat-race where the motive was grabbing more land in the guise of ethnic nationalism. In that context Germany, which entered the conflict belatedly and then miscalculated, paid the ultimate price: humiliating defeat. According to Luxemburg though (in her book), that defeat came up long before the War ended. It came up with the decision of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to support the "fatherland". This involved (clearly enough) support for the government.

For Luxemburg, this act signaled not the congruence of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie. It signaled a surrender of the former to the latter. Having reduced the conflict between the Allied and Central Powers to a battle for capital, she came to the conclusion that wars fought in the guise of "protecting the fatherland" would, if spearheaded by the bourgeoisie, end up curtailing freedoms given until then to the labour movement.

Luxemburg's thesis throughout was that the war was a result of certain differences within Europe. Notwithstanding the nationalist rhetoric, these differences arose due to capital interests superseding class struggles and privileging a national interest. This interest was "upheld" by a temporary curtailment of democracy.

She dissected this interest correctly. She concluded that it involved a submersion of the proletariat in a (largely) bourgeois conflict. For the most part, that explains her opposition to the SPD's support for war credits, notwithstanding the party's sustained vilification of Tsarist Russia. For her, Germany's (ill-fated) war with the Allied Powers was nothing more than a conflict between two imperialist big-shots, accentuated by the fight for more capital, finance, and geographical expansion.

What can be concluded is this. Any movement in which a national interest was at stake would become unsustainable the moment the Right took over it. A movement in which the Left played a subsidiary role, leaving room for capital interests to take over, would not only lead to an unsustainable autocracy but one which would last so long that chaos would result upon dissolution.

100 years on, we're no different. Let me explain.

Maithripala Sirisena's movement was a “Rainbow Coalition”. Well, coalitions change. After January 8, it got a little too green. That's refreshing, one might admit, especially after 20 years under the UPFA. But that didn't hide one fact: any government led by THE right-wing party here would reveal certain (inbred) contradictions which would surface eventually.

These contradictions resulted from the UNP itself. Since January 8 (if not before) it has done a good job of maintaining its right-wing character while forcing every other movement, from the Left to the Jathika Hela Urumaya (which theoretically doesn't exist anymore) to capitulate. In the absence of any viable opposition, the UNP has gone back on the January Manifesto, which explains its subsequent censorship of and crackdown on private media (along with its questionable handling of the economy).

This is called the Art of the Possible, folks.

There's not much of a parallel between Luxemburg's Germany and present-day Sri Lanka. There is one parallel though. Substitute the War for the campaign for good governance, the kowtowing of the SPD to the German government to the bankruptcy of both Old and New Left here (barring the Frontline Socialist Party), and the fight for capital during the War to the fight for (more) votes and the handing over of extravagant promises by both the SLFP and UNP, and you'll remember Duminda Nagamuwa's classic statement on the manifestos of both major parties: "Pieces of bourgeois cake served for the proletariat."

100 years after "The Junius Pamphlet", what Regi Siriwardena said of Luxemburg's position(s) is true of the FSP's stand on the current situation here. Its position is as based on the context in which it was placed (more Leftist than the JVP or LSSP) as Luxemburg’s (in her opposition to the SPD), Lenin’s (in his support for a centralised party), and Trotsky’s (in his opposition to Stalin) were.

Yes, some things never change. History does repeat. One way or another.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, July 18 2015