Friday, November 10, 2017

The Marxist head and the cultural heart

There’s a story from the 1971 insurrection that intrigues me even today. This story, I heard or rather read about from Malinga Gunaratne, who had in turn heard it from Victor Ivan. Apparently Victor had been arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned for his involvement with the insurrectionists and a series of attacks they had masterminded on police stations throughout the country. One of those attacks had involved a frontal assault on the Kadugannawa Station and had been led by a man whom Victor had met later on. What this man had done had roused him. The man’s name was Senerath, by the way.

What had happened was this: immediately after the assault, Senerath had played the role of a police inspector in charge of the Station. He had acted so well, in fact, that he had been able to give orders and run the show (so to speak) until the attacks were quelled and he was arrested. Now Victor had been interested by what he had done, so interested that he had been thrilled when a family member had given him a lunch packet to deliver to the man. Owing to his background in sociology perhaps, he had been able to wring out answers to the kind of questions he asked from Senerath, and so after handing him the lunch packet, he went straight to the point: Why did he dress up like that? The answer, which Victor related many years later to Malinga Gunaratne, had moved him to tears.

Senerath came from the village. From an early age, he had wanted to go to school and join the police. He had a problem though. He came from the Dhoby community. Strange as it may seem today, caste structures were once sharply enforced in Sinhala society. For that reason, Senerath had to suffer. He was not allowed to go to a proper school. He had no one to support his application to join the police. Worse, he was shirked by other more privileged boys. Having grown up shouldering this humiliation and seeing his dreams trampled on, he had done what most other boys, his age, would do. He had joined the JVP. The assault on the Station had thus brought him an opportunity that he had never before come close to. What happened after he was released, whether he got to the life he had clamoured after, however, Victor does not tell us.

There’s an interesting passage in Ranbanda Seneviratne’s “Ula Leno” I visit again and again. The song, incidentally, was about the 1971 insurrectionists and their hopes:

සංසාරේ හැටි තමයි
වියෝග ඇති වන්නේ
නිවනට ගියදා මේ
හැම දුක නැති වන්නේ

Ranbanda was writing about the insurrection, yes, but in these lines he was asserting what those against the insurrection had, patiently, been telling the would-be revolutionists: that what they suffered and endured was part and parcel of their miserable, samsaric life, and that they must continue to suffer and endure because it was, sadly, a universal truth. What transpired in and after 1971, however, was politically and socially interesting and uncomfortably paradoxical: the New Left, which had emerged in the sixties as a reaction against the apathy of the Trotskyites and Communists and what-not, did not take or affirm the rhetoric of revolution that had run riot before. In other words, they were no longer idealists envisioning Utopias. They wanted action, not policies, not manifestos. Gunadasa Kapuge’s lament was genuinely, movingly humanistic. But the values of this rather humanistic period of our history were soon to erode.

It was that inexplicable, rather pathetic contradiction – between the stated aims of an equal society and the largely bourgeois ethic of the leadership of the country – which bred and fermented two bloody insurrections. They eventually morphed into a Left movement that Malinda Seneviratne once demarcated as having a cultural heart and pseudo-Marxist heart. I would take issue with the latter label and revise it as follows: what 1971 and 1988 bred, in terms of the New Left, was a political movement that had a Marxist head and a cultural heart. They had repudiated the vanguard movement and all its ideological pretensions simply because they knew that any split between the leadership and the membership would breed an insidious kind of a conservative, reactionary society within their own ranks, affirming and sustaining a rift between those who could speak English and those who could not. Malinga Gunaratne himself wrote of this newfound suspicion of those who could speak the lingo, when once he was restrained from speaking for these radical leftists because he did not come from their class, their backdrop.

In other words it wasn’t the “saadukin pelena wun” rhetoric of the Old Left that would rouse the working class, rather the fiercely passionate, rooted, and at the same time culturally pluralistic Pawana rhetoric of Sunil Ariyaratne and Nanda Malini. It’s always tricky if not inadvisable to compare the objectives of a revolution with the lines and verses of revolutionary art, but in the songs of those two artistes we come across the kind of sensibility that the New Left, including but not limited to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, stood for: as I mentioned before, a cultural heart and a Marxist head, which affirmed the aspirations of the South (territorial integrity, with no capitulation to foreign entities) and the aspirations of the North (embracing every race, every creed, as one). To me this is best represented in the final few lines of the Pawana album’s most menacing song, Budun Daham (even more menacingly tuned as a virinduwa):

සිහළු ආපේ දෙමළු අපේ
මුස්ලිම් මිනිසුනුත් අපේ
උන් කඳවුරු බදින දිනේ
පරයන්ගේ බොටුව කැපේ

The New Left’s project was therefore opposed to the political project(s) of the Old Left, in that while it sought to do away with chauvinism it was also opposed to intervention by foreign actors, the latter of which was covertly supported by elements from their ideological foes, the Trotskyites and the Communists (this can be inferred by a perusal of Susantha Goonatilake’s unfortunately neglected book Recolonisation, where he exposes everyone and anyone in our political sphere who abandoned the rebels from the New Left for reasons of political expediency, including several members of today’s NGO intelligentsia).

Whether the JVP or its many offshoots, before and after its entry to the democratic process, was able to reconcile the head and the heart is a question to which even political scientists, let alone commentators, can’t supply an adequate answer. And why? Because of the deliberately vague, confused state of the New Left, then and now. It was the New Left that eschewed race and faith for comradeship unhindered by class distinctions (which, by the way, was the fatal contradiction of the Old Left, since the platform of racial and religious harmony they stood for was undone by their economic status), yes, but it was also this same New Left that, through one of its more prominent members in our parliament, asserted that homosexuality and bisexuality were totally alien to and unacceptable in Sri Lanka, despite its avowedly liberal attitude towards matters of such controversy. The heart, as always, remains cut off from the head.

And while they were all trying to connect the one to the other, their ideological foes elsewhere were being overwhelmed by the most disastrous wave of anti-left movements that were being paraded by their financiers as pro-left. The undoing of the Old Left was the undoing of Left movements everywhere in the eighties, a period that saw the end of the Cold War and the diffusion of political realities and conflicts between the unilateralists and the multilateralists, the latter of whom have joined the former in their quest to prove Huntington’s clash of civilisations. The end of the Cold War was, therefore, accompanied by a culture of intellectualism which sought to substitute the class consciousness of the traditional left for a new, ethnocentric conception of rights and justice. Where the Old Left figured in all this, and what response the New Left had to it, opens up another topic, one which I will dwell on next week.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 10 2017