On The Current Debate Among Left Intellectuals

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

For a country with a deep crisis, galloping poverty and a very significant Left (JVP-NPP and FSP), there is a paradoxically thin contribution by the leftwing intelligentsia. This can be contrasted by a cursory glance at the volumes of back issues of the Lanka Guardian which would illustrate the far thicker contribution by leftwing intellectuals in the 1980s (not to mention earlier decades).  

Another contrast between today and the 1980s is that there are hardly any debates on the political Left, though the conspicuous Left formations could do them.  

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Left Debate 

Therefore, the current contribution by the left intellectuals has to be greatly valued. I refer (in no particular order) to Kumar David, Rajan Phillips, Ahilan Kadirgamar, Devaka Gunawardena, Uditha Devapriya, Shiran Ilanperuma and Kanishka Gunawardena. I would have included Kusum Wijetilleke whose contribution is stellar but would qualify more as progressive or ‘left-leaning’ than ‘leftist’ in terms of his concerns and framework. 

Kumar David is seniormost and sui generis, Rajan Phillips’ framework is more broadly left-liberal than left, Ahilan writes regularly and invaluably on economics. Kanishka writes all too infrequently. 

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This leaves the troika of Devaka-Uditha-Shiran to debate political issues from a left perspective. Despite their palpable intelligence, the fact that you don’t need the fingers of even one hand to count these left intellectuals who write for publication in English is a sad state of affairs, given the volume of thinking-through the Left needs to do and is not being done. 

Over several weeks Devaka, Shiran and Uditha have been engaged in a most important debate over a cluster of related issues. These include Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, liberal civil society and anti-imperialism. 

Each writer has tried to grapple with each of these issues but running like a subterranean stream beneath it all is a debate, more implicit than explicit, on a progressive political perspective and left strategy. 

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I am not saying that the attempt of each of these writers to come to grips with each of these issues is but a screen for a polemic on strategy. I am saying that these intrinsically valuable explorations of each subject and the attempt to construct a framework for oneself and others, also has an important dimension of political strategy and therefore an enhanced value. 

I may be engaged in oversimplification or simply in error, but it seems to me that the underlying question is: “which is more reactionary, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism or liberal civil society, and how do –how should–each of these phenomena figure in an anti-imperialist politics?”  

The question seems to constitute an intractable conundrum, but perhaps that because of the way it is looked at.     

Dialectical-Historical Method

To my mind the Gordian Knot can be cut by a what Georg Lukacs calls the ‘dialectical-historical’ method. 

The dialectical part would consist of an acknowledgement that none of these phenomena are monolithic and unearthing the essential contradiction within each phenomenon. 

The historical part would be to figure out which aspect of the contradictory character of the phenomenon under discussion comes—or had come– to the forefront and which had receded into a secondary place, at which period of history and, upon closer focus, at which moment and in which situation.     

In short there is no simple answer. The issue is intrinsically complex and problematic. The phenomena are also dynamic, not static, and must be viewed as such. The question must be viewed concretely. ‘Sinhala Buddhist nationalism’ when and in relation to what? Likewise, ‘liberal civil society’. This is true of that holy of holies, ‘anti-imperialism’ as well. 

Slavoj Zizek was fond of repeating a humorous yet deadly serious reply by Stalin to the journalist who asked him, which is worse, the right deviation or the left deviation. Stalin replied “they are both worse”. There are times, the same answer may be true with regard to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and liberal civil society. They are both worse. 

For his part, Samir Amin was also fond of quoting a line from Stalin, from Foundations of Leninism, where he pointed out that the intrinsically reactionary ideology of a movement or personality may be less important than the role he/she/it plays in the anti-imperialist struggle. “That is why the Emir of Afghanistan is more progressive than the British Labour party” quipped Stalin, but in all seriousness.  

It really depends on the larger context; on what else is happening. The framework of the debate should be widened, instead of assuming an essential, unchanging, monolithic character of any phenomenon—and issuing from that, the possibility of formulating an answer that is correct in any absolute sense.

1956 & Sinhala Nationalism

Let me conclude with two personal reference points. Firstly, my father Mervyn de Silva’s own grappling with the phenomena of SWRD Bandaranaike, Sinhala nationalism, 1956 and all that. SWRD had thrust him into the study of international affairs in his late 20s. Mervyn turned 30 the year SWRD was assassinated. 

“Perhaps in the absence of a truly national and unifying pre-independence movement, Ceylonese nationalism, denied a natural birth, acquired mongrel features with the departure of the foreign ruler. Inasmuch as it was against foreign domination and foreign symbols, this nationalism historically speaking, was normal. But when it focused on the Tamil minority, a community identified as the favoured child of colonial policies, it was racist.” 

(‘April Anniversaries’, Teilhard de Chardin lecture, Lanka Guardian April 1981) 

Mervyn was not a Marxist dialectician but a literary critic with an advanced sensibility even as a youth, according to Godfrey Gunatilleke. The lesson is that what is most important is not to rush to judgment but to wrestle with and comprehend.

Neo-Fascism & Nationalism

Secondly, here is an extended quote from something I wrote on Sinhala nationalism. 

“…In 1985 the World Festival of Youth and Students was addressed by two old time revolutionary heroes. One was Miguel Marmol, a leader of the 1933 communist uprising in El Salvador led by the iconic Farabundo Marti. The other was Kurt Julius Goldstein, German Jewish Communist, veteran of the Spanish Civil War, survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald as well as the notorious ‘Death March’, and the head of the World Federation of Anti-Fascist Resistance Fighters. My extended conversation with Goldstein was two years after July ’83 and I asked him what the main lessons were that he drew from his experiences and those of his heroic comrades. I asked him the main mistakes the antifascists of the 1930s made, the mistakes that he would not repeat if he were put on a time machine. I recorded his answer in the Lanka Guardian of that time. 

He said that the biggest error the Left made was to confuse nationalism, chauvinism and fascism: “we should have united with nationalism, even chauvinism, to fight fascism; instead of which we treated them as all the same”. He said– and I published it at the time– that they, the Left of that day, confused nationalism, populism and chauvinism with fascism, and that they should have differentiated between these and fascism, adopting a strategy of uniting or working with all those diverse (even unsavory) elements of an anti-status quo orientation who could be united, neutralizing those who could not, and identifying, isolating and targeting the fascists. 

He said the Left was insensitive to the grievances of those misguided social forces and did not know how to approach them– which opened the space for fascist appeals to resonate and monopolize. I believe the same mistakes should not be repeated today. One must not fail to grapple with, and adopt a new approach, to the phenomena of nationalism and patriotism, including Sinhala nationalism and patriotism. 

…Sinhala-Buddhism as such is too old, rooted, broad and organic to be frontally confronted and ruptured with. Instead, it must be externally contained and countervailed; its plasticity recognized; it must be internally reworked, re-calibrated, re-set and re-assembled so as to fairly and justly accommodate multi-ethnicity, multi-religiosity, multilingualism and multiculturalism, i.e., pluralism. The gap between the interests of the Sinhalese, including the Sinhala Buddhists, and the extreme, sectarian versions of Sinhala Buddhism, must be exposed, highlighted and utilized to combat the latter…

…Sinhala fascism cannot be defeated by frontally opposing Sinhala Buddhism or Sinhala nationalism as such. Nor can it be defeated outside of a national-democratic strategy to build a united Sri Lankan nation and state, resisting external interventionism and Tamil secessionism. This means a patriotic, popular-democratic platform, but may well require the adoption of a populist and patriotic one which includes a nationalist plank…” (How To & How Not To Fight Future Fascism  – Colombo Telegraph) 

Operative Implications & Conclusions

I’m not saying I’d draw the same conclusion today or phrase it in exactly the same way, but as the Ranil regime hardens into an election-killing ‘dependent authoritarianism’ or even ‘dependent neo-fascism’, I do want to share what Kurt Julius Goldstein told me and what I made of it. I hope it helps the current discussion among young Left intellectuals. 

None of this should this be read as any kind of defence of the Uttara Lanka bloc in which the social chauvinists, xenophobes and conspiracy theorists are the head not the tail (the latter is composed of genuinely left parties). 

The Uttara Lanka leadership’s indictment of the Aragalaya as an imperialist plot is wildly lunatic as it would have been had Lenin denounced the abortive 1905 revolution as reactionary because the triggering event was a massacre of a procession led by Father Gapon (in fact Lenin wrote warmly about him and militantly intervened in support of the ensuing 1905 armed uprising), or worse still, the Russian Revolution of 1917 is classified a ‘Colour Revolution’ because Lenin arrived at the Finland station on a sealed train provided by the German imperialists who were at war with Russia! 

Reason, universality and modernity must be the philosophical base (but exceptionally, not perhaps the exclusive component) of any values and ideology that lead and guide a progressive bloc.  

I would only suggest that debates among left intellectuals be informed by the spirit of intervention in the concrete conjuncture and aimed at impacting the practice of the actually existing Left(s)— NPP-JVP, FSP-IUSF and CPSL and DLF. What’s missing in the current debates is the operative bottom-line, however provisional.     

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