Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Left: the god that (we) failed

In his essay “The Ex-Communist’s Conscience”, Isaac Deutscher lambasted those he felt to have abandoned their youthful inclinations for extreme Marxism in favour of a rightwing economic and social philosophy that was as bad, if not worse. He argued, cogently I believe, that with the betrayal of the stateless society (for which the Russians had fought in 1917) by Joseph Stalin, the ex-Communist, or the Communist who became a renegade, sought solace in a variant of rightwing politics that was, at the end of the day, no better than the totalitarian excesses of Stalin.

Deutscher’s essay, incidentally, was a review of The God That Failed, a book brought out by a group of ex-Communists (Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright), all of whom (in particular, Koestler) had been idealists who’d looked up to the Russian Revolution and what it stood for even as Stalin forced out Trotsky in the power struggle that ensued after Lenin’s death. I hardly need to add that, never mind the withering of the state that socialism was supposed to bring about, not even Stalin could prevent the institutionalisation of bureaucracy that Marx had cautioned against in his writings.

As for those six ex-Communists, they weren’t the only renegades who’d later made a mark in what I termed in my column last week as a “dark decade” in American history (the fifties), but they were the most vocal back then. Among the others who would joined them were John dos Passos (whose poetry, despite his being a renegade, stands out remarkably fresh even today), Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, and Max Eastman (a close associate of John Reed, one of three Americans buried at the Kremlin). Because of what they felt to have been a betrayal of their ideals, they all made a circuit from the Left to the extreme Right.

Deutscher did not condemn their anger against Communism. What he condemned was the refuge they sought in their attempt to ward off their inclinations for the Left. He succinctly tracked down their route: having broken away from the Communist Party, they’d declare loyalty to their own sect and creed of the doctrines which they felt the Party should stand for, before breaking away from Communism altogether. I think Deutscher put it best: “He (the ex-Communist) no longer throws out the dirty water of the Russian revolution to protect the baby; he discovers that the baby is a monster which must be strangled. The heretic becomes a renegade.”

The world is littered with renegades who pass themselves off as heretics. Party politics, personalities, ideologies: these congeal in the end to mere rhetoric. It’s all about power and clinging to power. If at all, the history of the Left, marred as it is by ideological shifts and divisions, is a good indicator of how far we have ventured out and come back. We are all heretics who become renegades, and for that reason, no Left movement in today’s world has been immune to breakages and slip-ups.

Last Sunday (December 18) marked the 81st anniversary of the oldest political force in the country, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). “Force” is a strong word, so strong that it can’t be used to refer to a party that, in the opinion of some, has outlasted its glories, but for the moment let’s forget that. Whether or not one agrees with its principles, one can’t disagree with its past. There were, as is typical of such parties, shifts and breakages, but these were resolved (until relatively recently) in favour of an all-encompassing ideology that made up the most powerful Trotskyite party in the world. This week’s column is not about the LSSP but about the Left in Sri Lanka: not the (lowercase) god that failed us, but the god that we failed.

Historians, in their attempt to compare Sri Lanka with other colonial countries, frequently and falsely contend that the period from 1815 to 1948 was one in which capitalism bloomed. This is not a tirade against every historian: there have been some who’ve identified this period for what it was: one in which schools, Universities, and every other institution considered today as a public service catered to a stunted, hybrid bourgeoisie. No less a person than Professor Kumari Jayawardena, with her landmark research on the colonial bourgeoisie, argues that even in a supposedly capitalist society as the one we were supposed to have had, caste considerations did not erode away. In Nobodies to Somebodies, she refers the caste rifts rather wittily as symbolising a transition from the “Old Mudliyars to the New Misters.”

The colonial bourgeoisie tried their hand at tolls and rents, monopolising the paalam paruwa in an attempt to curry favour with the coloniser. Needless to say, they were paid for their loyalty. As the British solidified their stranglehold, the aspiring bourgeoisie rose, graduating from the plantation sector to mining, arrack rents, and eventually the post of the Mudliyar. Practically every school financed and built during this time, at least those considered as “elite” today, were there for one purpose: to help the “native” landowner and rentier obtain a Westernised education for his children. The irony of this, if you can spot it out, is that 12 years were spent in these schools and another four or five in University (preferably Oxford or Cambridge) for the purpose of getting employed as translators, clerks, and civil servants in a menial government office.

The truth then is that this burgeoning capitalist class was not capitalist at all. All they did was mine, extract, and sell. They were not businessmen. They were extractors. They were not interested in making profits. They were more interested in making a quick buck. In other words, the colonial bourgeoisie were never the productive commercialists they’re touted as today. What they earned they got easily, if not because of a monopoly over natural resources then because of cheap labour and colonial patronage.

In the rush to rake up profits that naturally resulted from this, not everyone made it big: as Nobodies to Somebodies makes it clear, families such as the Telge Peiris ancestry from Panadura were afflicted by the vagaries of demand and supply which were part of the primary sector they were operating in. The few that did make it big, however, literally gave birth to an anomaly: their offspring became social, political, and economic agitators. Their sons became prodigal, their daughters took to the feminist movement, and all in all, a largely Western education supplied them the very tools of social change the parents had held back.

Leopards, however, don’t change spots and these offspring, even after the religions riots of 1883 and the racial riots of 1915, congealed into the elite their parents had been: aristocratic to a fault, yet mindful about superstition and tradition and wary of modernity.

This latter contradiction, a reflection of their hybrid (confused) identity, spilt over to 1948 and our post-independence history, when key political figures from the colonial bourgeoisie became both elitists and demagogues: ignorant of the aspirations of the majority, yet pandering to their chauvinist, self-destructive demands as and when it was expedient to do so. As I observed in my article on poverty and the (political) periphery in September, no class has done more harm to this country than the meritocrats, i.e. those who conflate economic power with intelligence.

It was in this context that the LSSP was formed, in 1935. Long before the UNP was formed and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike brought about swabasha, the stalwarts of the Left – Philip, N. M., and Colvin – were agitating for complete independence. It was Philip Gunawardena, not those touted as national heroes today, who asked for an independence that went beyond Dominion status. While I personally feel that the transition from colony to Dominion helped ward off much of the ethnic unrest that heralded India’s independence in 1947, I also feel that by artificially concealing a political structure that catered to the British under a veneer of populism, our leaders managed to bottle up the hopes, fears, and ideals of the majority, all of which broke out so violently later on that we are still paying the price for the short-sightedness of our leaders.

Regi Siriwardena, in a series of essays, tried to answer a perplexing question: why, even after taking the front in our independence struggle, couldn’t the LSSP muster broad support? Siriwardena’s answer was that the LSSP was a Trotskyite party and Trotskyism, at its base, repudiated nationalism.

To that my answer, presumptuous as it may seem, is that the people simply couldn’t have cared whether Leon Trotsky rubbished nationalism or not. Secular though their outlook may have been, the stalwarts of the Left were no “mul sidagath aragal karayo” (uprooted revolutionaries): they were connected with the people and this at a time when even independent candidates (including Kumari Jayawardena’s father, A. P. de Zoysa) could hope to enter the Legislature. They were popular, they did muster support (the Bracegirdle affair is evidence for this), and they could and did get elected to represent the people.

The answer, I feel therefore, is more complex than what Siriwardena came up with. My belief is that the political elite of the day could and did contest with no opposition, while the candidates from the Left had to contend with the many instances of malpractice, abuse, and the advantage of the upper hand the elite were endowed with. The latter point was clearly discernible in the State Council election of 1936. While quite a number of leftists, Philip Gunawardena included, entered with comfortable victories, in constituencies home to the political establishment (such as Veyangoda and Kelaniya) the candidate was elected unopposed. This is of course not the only reason why the Left couldn’t fare well, and why, in later years, it had to be happy kowtowing to a breakaway faction of the UNP. But it is a reason nevertheless.

Given this, what did 1956, 1964, and 1970 breed? The Old Left, even by then a pale replica of what it had once been (after all, no movement can be expected to sustain its base after years of detention and internal rifts), facilitated the “maturing of the long submerged Sinhalese intelligentsia.” This intelligentsia, which Siriwardena saw as a "belated and embryonic bourgeoisie", consisted of the kade mudalali and the game iskole mahaththaya. Ideologically they reflected the rightwing outlook of the very same forces the nationalists championed: the pancha maha balavegaya.

The irony here, incidentally, is that no more than three decades later, the same Old Left that championed swabasha and “Sinhala Only” would be distorted by the NGO mafia to pander to minoritarianism and federal-speak. It was left to the New Left, the radical movement from the South (as opposed to the pipe-smoking, armchair socialism that had adorned the independence struggle against the Establishment), to rake up problems and force the government to see them.

This of course led to two uprisings resulting in atrocities that account for the massive deficit of professionals, artistes, and thinkers we are facing today, subject to the caveat that sections of the Old Left, by omission or commission, aided and abetted the ideology of the same government they were supposed to be against. Given this context, it’s no cause for wonderment that the radicals from the South could do what even the army couldn’t: bring the entire country to a standstill for three years.

“Whither the Left now?” is a question on everyone’s lips, though not everyone can or will answer it. It is the basis for a tragedy and a farce, a reflection on opportunities missed and never reclaimed. The Old Left today, all in all, have consistently shown that they are behind the political bourgeoisie, that they are unable to stand up on their own, that they lack the courage of their own convictions.

How bad is this? On the one hand, we have a section of the LSSP supporting the former president on account of what is felt to be his opposition to the West. On the other hand, we have another section (ironically baptised as the “Majority Group”) proclaiming that their aim is to solidify the gains made on January 8 last year. The latter, by the way, is careful to weed out the fact that they are part of a government led by their historical foe, the UNP: in every press release and feel-good statement they make, they hence proclaim support for the president, not the government. Which side is better, which side is more despicable? Again, not a question everyone can answer.

Where do we go from here? Do we look back at vanished glories, or do we glorify the turncoats who’ve absconded ideals for expedience? It’s a pity Sri Lanka couldn’t throw up a Deutscher to answer this.

In A Passage to India, Ronny Heaslop asks the more liberal and tolerant colonial Englishman, Cyril Fielding, as to where one can find the real India. "Try seeing Indians," Fielding replies. “Where can one find the real Left?” we can ask, at which Fielding, I believe, would have vanished away without an answer. Not because there aren’t any real Leftists, but because thanks to this accursed reality called power politics, no leftist worth his salt would stay for long, hen-cooped in his vision of the country and the world, without capitulating.

Written for: Ceylon Today, December 20 2016