Thursday, December 29, 2016

The curse of the (Old) Left

It’s easy to get caught in rhetoric. Easy to make others believe that rhetoric represents the truth. Ideologues can sometimes get swayed by the lure of the moment and convince everyone, and by that I mean everyone, of the veracity of their arguments. The truth tends to get distorted, contorted, and eventually coated with enough sugar to appeal to both sides of the political divide. Sure, along the way words are made up and tossed around for the sake of attaining solidity in rhetoric, but all in all, it’s nothing more and nothing less than marketing.

I suppose capitalism doesn’t need rhetoric to win anyone over. It’s been marketed enough for what it is not that people don’t need argumentative skills to convince us to their side. All they need is a conveniently structured myth, paraded as dogma. As Fernand Braudel noted, after all, capitalism was never based on free market economics as its supporters claim it was: governments and policymakers distorted the market and monopolised it for the sake of (quick) profit. In the United States the unemployed are referred to as bums and rent-seekers, but if we go by Braudel’s theory, the real rent-seekers are those distorting the market while parading themselves as champions of Milton Friedman and Adam Smith: namely, fat-cat managers and executives.

It’s a different story when it comes to the Left. In this interminable, interconnected world we are supposed to consider as globalised, there’s no place “left” for the champions of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and all those other hoorah-boys of Marx. They have no marketers and like all impoverished ideologues, they need money. Even if it meant that they join up with the ruling class they were supposed to shun, they abandoned principles. In the end, they failed.

Why though? Because they rubbished tradition and culture, and rubbished them to the extent of forgetting their relevance when appealing to the voter.

For a while in Sri Lanka, this worked. Then came the SLFP, which to my mind represented the biggest blow to the Left in this country, simply because it shed the cosmopolitan face of socialism while being parading around as a socialist movement, which it was not (as Regi Siriwardena pointed out, it appealed to the infantile village bourgeoisie, which unlike their urban counterpart were chauvinistic and anti-Tamil). With no other option in sight, the (Old) Left became content in planning out their Revolution from the sidelines. As Denzil Peiris observed, 1956 was not a vote for the Left. It was a vote for Bandaranaike. The two were not the same.

That’s when things went downhill. The Left had agitated for equal rights, parity of status, and language privileges for all, not just the (ethnic) majority. The government was in no mood to entertain such idealistic policies and it certainly did not need Marxists for its sustenance. For the next two decades therefore, except for the likes of Philip Gunawardena and N. M. Perera, who managed to drive their policies through the government of the day, the Left floundered. The birth of the New Left in the form of the JVP was inevitable, as inevitable as the later substitution of race for class by the Old Left.

I’ve pointed out elsewhere that with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Old Left was preyed on by forces not even remotely sympathetic to the principles of Marxism. They became, as we all know, the biggest funders of key representatives of the Left, who not only legitimised through silence the witch-hunt against the JVP (which stood against the Indo-Lanka Accord), but also made use of the JVP’s absence to crystallise into a policy elite that, regardless of the aspirations of the majority of the country, called the shots in the government of the day.

I’ve always wondered whether we need the Old Left anymore. It’s a spent force, for starters. Sure, we had the most promising Trotskyite party in the world, but that was before Trotsky was assassinated and before people began realising the inherent deficiencies of an ideology that subsisted, regardless of Philip Gunawardena’s attempts at making it more palatable to the village peasantry, on cosmopolitanism.

To be fair by the likes of Gunawardena though, the stalwarts of the LSSP then were no blue-eyed idealists flirting with federal-speak and Eelamism: unlike their descendants, they knew the aspirations of the majority enough to counter chauvinist demands from (self-appointed) representatives of the minority. They were, in short, principled, so principled that their kith and kin didn’t merely side with their cause but went on to create their own ideology which privileged the country before Marxist utopias (yes, I am talking of Dinesh Gunawardena here).

Just the other day I was talking with a playwright, a nationalist and a deeply secular one at that. He had a habit of calling a spade a spade. We were talking about the ethnic conflict and how ideology had tried to address grievances in a way politics could not. He was adamant that the conflict had been ballooned beyond proportion. He contended that the Sinhalese, despite their less than favourable history, had little to no rights in parts of the country where certain minorities held sway, and argued quite cogently that even in a secular society (which he was in favour of), numerical realities must be taken into account.

That’s when he brought up the Left. He quoted Colvin R. de Silva’s forever-quoted quote on the minority question, “One language, two nations; two languages, one nation.” Colvin’s proposition was to equalise Tamil with Sinhala, which to this playwright seemed a mild version of G. G. Ponnanbalam’s infamous 50-50 thesis. I couldn’t resist telling him then and there, “The Left has played around with words so much that even today, federalists and devolutionists draw from their rhetoric when defending calls for separatism.” He agreed.

I then said, “The Left has become a curse to this country.” He replied, “It always was.”

Now this playwright isn’t someone you could call a chauvinist. He was, for one thing, a firm believer in a secular constitution, with the obvious caveat that secularism is meaningless without first accounting for numerical and ethnic realities. He was no fan of the Left, obviously. His stance on Colvin’s careless and crass position on language rights was summed up by what he said next: “That was an irrational and mischievous thing to say. It privileges language as the only differentiating factor in a society when clearly there are other more dangerous such factors.” The Left, he implied correctly, had abandoned these other factors in its quest for appearing holier-than-thou on the ethnic question, to the separatists and their side of the debate of course.

I am less ruffled by this, however, than by the hypocrisy of the Left in terms of how it views its own principles. You come across self-proclaimed leftists praising the United National Party (I kid you not) for handling the economy well, and inserting caveats that it should do better if it is to achieve social equity. Mind you, these are the same pundits who berated the previous regime for its lumpen, anti-proletarian economic policies (policies that, inter alia, rescued the Transport Board and several other state institutions from the mess they were thrown into by the regime that preceded it, a regime these pundits supported unconditionally because of its commitment to federalism).

They were out on the streets shouting “Down with the State!” but surprisingly hear and see no evil when it comes to the present regime. They claim “Better than the last one we got!” but that is not adequate. Given the mess the government has got itself into thanks to a President who can’t say one thing without contradicting it days later, I can only conclude that the only if not main reason for their support for the present regime is the (perceived) affirmation of devolution, federalism, and 13-plus by key spokespersons in it.

In itself, there’s nothing wrong with this. A world where only nationalism reigned supreme would be quite dull indeed. Hypocrisy, however, is another kettle of fish altogether. So is dishing out federal-speak in the name of ameliorating interethnic disparities.

These pundits forget if not marginalise the nauseating measures taken by the government against the majority (regardless of ethnicity) and concentrate on achieving their self-proclaimed Utopias. They’ve idealised the ethnic and the religious and think they can do away with the social, forgetting that the former are but constituents of the latter.

No one is saying that ethnic minorities haven’t been targeted. They have been. For centuries and for decades, they have been on the receiving end of a State that used them, again and again, for the sake of expedience. Their rights have been downed legally and illegally. The machinery of the State has been used to whip up hatred against them. Despite that, however, I believe we’re concentrating on the wrong priorities.

We’re confused about what we want for them. We’ve caved in to ideologues who preach the gospel of multiculturalism without accounting for numerical, social, and ethnic realities. We’ve forgotten the simple but stark fact that it’s misconceived to create a cosmopolitan society if we have to wave good-bye to cosmopolitanism in the North and East. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not tenable by any stretch of the imagination.

In short, we’re so entranced with achieving a pluralistic society that we say, “I don’t care what the f*** your ethnicity is, I’m Sri Lankan”, forgetting that extremists from the North are more concerned with ethnic purity than coexistence. “What is wrong with telling about who we are?” queries Chief Minister Wigneswaran, even as politicians from the South campaign on the premise that coexistence can only operate if the Sinhalese stop affirming their identity and even as the good CM refuses to see the irony in his statement. The Left, through mischievous errors of commission and omission, has conveniently erased reality from rhetoric.

The Old Left, going by that, continues to be a curse to this country. Always were, always have been. Time we told them to stop fudging around with history, hence. Time we told them to concentrate on the social and economic. And time we told them to shut up and move on.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com