Friday, November 3, 2017

The history of the vanguard

Somewhere in the late forties and early fifties in the United States a group of intellectuals and artists who had earlier been members of the Communist Party publicly and willingly denounced communism. Some of them went further: they alleged that communists had infiltrated the government and the movie industry and thus consciously started a witch-hunt against those who were felt to be too liberal, too soft, with respect to the Soviet Union. An irony, considering that the US War Propaganda Machine had covertly encouraged filmmakers to depict the Soviets as a peace-loving people (this was during the Second World War, when the communists sided with the Free World against the Nazis). The result of all these experiences with left-wing politics was a long tract against left-wing politics by the ex-communists: The God That Failed.

Isaac Deutscher, the Polish journalist, critic, and activist, whose biographies of Trotsky and Stalin are revered and acclaimed the world over even today, reviewed this book and began his review by quoting one of the writers, Ignazio Silone: “The final struggle will be between the communists and the ex-communists.” The names of the other writers were marketable enough: Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon), AndrĂ© Gide, Louis Fischer, Richard Wright, and Stephen Spender. There were other names involved, of course: Whittaker Chambers, who denounced Alger Hiss during the Red Scare years, and Max Eastman, who had been a close friend of John Reed, the American journalist who covered the October Revolution and was cremated at the Kremlin.

Deutscher spared no words: for him, inasmuch as the disillusionment felt by these six ex-communists would have been powerful and understandable, the route they had taken, from disenchantment to anger to downright fury, merely made them embrace a form of totalitarianism and paranoia that was no different to that which they had rejected. As legal scholars have pointed out, after all, the Hollywood Blacklist, in which suspected communists in Hollywood were disbarred from engaging in any work in the industry, had no proper legal basis: it was and it remains illegal because no crime was ever properly defined, the powers of the American Congress notwithstanding. In embracing that kind of irrational frenzy, therefore, the ex-communist was no different to the Stalinist. “The heretic,” Deutscher observed, “becomes a renegade.”

But there were reasons for the change, not least of them Stalin’s Purges. In themselves these constituted a flagrant betrayal of the revolution because the liberal tradition that had preceded it, during the Lenin years, were all gone in a series of kangaroo trials. It’s not difficult to imagine the ardent Stalinist or even Trotskyite cringing before the sight of intellectuals and thinkers being put to death, or before the cowardice of those who had to yield and betray friends. An irony, certainly, because in later years they would be willing organisers of a similar series of kangaroo trials in their own country that promoted witch-hunts on the one hand and betrayals on the other. But I’m digressing here.

This November marks a hundred years since the October Revolution. What it means for Sri Lanka, whether the left movement in this country (if there is such a movement) has survived, are questions best answered later. For now, what interests me is this: in a context where the left has been consistently vilified using all sorts of epithets, what place did it have here and elsewhere? In other words, has history been unkind?

In colonial societies like ours, the rift in the left movement was between the base and the superstructure, or in other words the leadership and the membership. This translated to the rift between the vanguard and the laity, a rift that was necessitated in our societies because for the most it was the vanguard leadership who had access to Marxist literature. Obviously the membership, most of whom were barely conversant in English, did not have that access, a problem compounded by the fact that this was long before any proper Sinhala translation of those texts were made. What resulted was a curious contradiction, between the stated aims of a society of equals and the class orientation of the vanguard, most of whom, it must be said, came from the anglicised upper crust of their countries.

Given this situation it wasn’t too surprising that over the years the personal views of the leadership should clash and give way to rifts, splinters, and amalgamations within the parties based on ideological grounds: between the Stalinists and the Trotskyites, and later between the revolutionary and the gradualist wings of the Trotskyites. Sri Lanka unfortunately proved this to be more the case than the exception, unfortunate because, as the likes of Regi Siriwardena has observed, we did not have the kind of militantly nationalistic bourgeoisie who were agitating for independence in India. Consequently there was an opportunity for the Trotskyites, an opportunity that was not availed of. But this is not the only difference between colonial and postcolonial Sri Lanka (between Ceylon and Sri Lanka) that is vital to any assessment of our left movement.

Commentators sometimes contend that what gave rise to the Stalinist excesses of the thirties and forties was the fact that the Communist Party, in Russia, was a vanguard entity, which is true to an extent. But the vanguard entity that spawned totalitarianism in that part of the world spawned apathy and complacency in ours: despite the best attempts by our most farsighted leftist leaders, N. M. Perera and Philip Gunawardena included, they could not resist yielding to ideological pressures brought about by populist politics. It was this culture of political complacency that was echoed in the reactions of the left to the JVP student insurrection of 1971. One by one, the revolutionists, who would all be rounded up and rehabilitated and then only released to their societies, were indicted as CIA-sponsored fascists fresh from their adventures in Jakarta (where the CIA had earlier taken part in the rise to power of General Suharto, by no means a leftist).

1956 had released a whole horde of idealists who would wallow in free education and a government they could consider as theirs. But not unlike the idealists of the forties in the United States, the children of 1956, or the children of those children, who had voted for change over the status quo and hence Bandaranaike over Senanayake, were fast becoming disillusioned by the people that had become the leaders of their movement, economically and socially. Needless to say it was during these years – the Sirimavo years, when Sri Lanka attained self-sufficiency in food and tried to keep up with the rest of the industrialised world – which gave rise to two issues: growing unemployment on the one hand and growing racial unrest on the other. The first would breed the insurrection; the second, a bloody, costly 30 year war.

By this time, of course, the rift between the vanguard and the laity, and the laity and the fringe, had given way: because of free education along with translations of Marxist texts and literature from Russia, an entire bilingual and vernacular generation grew up to spurn the Old Left that had inspired the vanguard movement. The Old Left was exactly that, therefore: Old. This wasn’t the time for swimming pool, armchair socialists who smoked and led extravagant lives that were manifestly at odds with the kind of the lifestyles they were promoting throughout the country. They had earned the enmity of the bourgeoisie before; now they were earning the enmity of the people, predominantly the middle class.

So we all became renegades, but not before those among us who remained idealists took to the New Left. In the eighties the LSSP along with a bunch of other parties formed the United Socialist Alliance with Vijaya Kumaratunga to emulate the freewheeling, sahodhara-premaya rhetoric of the JVP. But it was to no avail: as I noted a few months back elsewhere, while the USA depended on Vijaya, Vijaya did not depend on the USA. When he was killed, consequently, the USA was finished, bringing about the third most significant political phenomenon since 1956 and 1971: the federalist-devolutionist discourse that continues in our political circles even today. But that’s for another article.

If the sixties and the seventies saw a dismantling of the vanguard structure in our left movement, then the new millennium saw a dismantling of the rift between the lay membership and the fringe, at the expense of the leadership. What I mean here, of course, is the empowerment of the student movement, and the fringe movement, both of which have proved to be more powerful, more credible, than the politburos of the New Left. The fringe movement was formerly the monopoly of the ivory tower academic, whose main role today is to apologise for the excesses of whatever government he or she is a part of (a sad contradiction, certainly): now, on the other hand, it has been transformed to an oppositional space occupied by ordinary folk, artists, civil rights activists, intellectuals not cut off from the general public. This particular phenomenon deserves separate treatment. I will get to it. Here. Next week. For now, I am done.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 3 2017