By Uditha Devapriya
“But what seems utterly incredible is that anyone should consider that the problems of the 5th century continue to be the problems of today. Or that the ideological outlook of the 5th century should determine our approaches to the problems of the 20th century.” – Hector Abhayavardhana
In Sri Lanka, a book launch invariably becomes an “event”, and a book review becomes a review of the launch. Sri Lankans tend to loquacious: they speak whatever they want even if it’s irrelevant and off-topic. The launch of Mahinda Ariyawansa’s Anil Moonesinghe: The Gold Standard of Honest Politics, last Sunday, threatened to meander into such an event. Yet despite the verbal deluges one gets at such ceremonies, this book, and its subject, remains quite importantly. As far as political biographies go, it may be better or worse than most Sri Lankan political biographies. But no one has written about Anil Moonesinghe, and we ought to be grateful to Ariyawanha for becoming the first to do so.
Most accounts of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party focus on three figures, each as colourful and unique as the other: Colvin, N. M., and Philip. While the Social Scientists’ Association came up with a collection of Hector Abhayavardhana’s essays and a couple or so books have been published on other stalwarts in the party, prominently Vivienne Goonewardene, there are several individuals who have yet to be written about at all.
Anil Moonesinghe, in that sense, remains a figure in the dark, whose contribution to the Left movement was profound but about whom we know very little. This is all the more puzzling given that Anil, more so than even Philip Gunawardena, represented, if not epitomised, a unique combination of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and anti-imperialist Marxism.
Regi Siriwardena once commented that their immersion in Marx and F. R. Leavis made the LSSP’s upper crust think of themselves as above the rest: “as a Leavisian, you were one of the discriminating minority, and as a Marxist, you were part of the revolutionary vanguard.” I am not sure how true this is, and in any case it did not apply to N. M, Philip, or Colvin, but I am struck by Regi’s suggestion that these activists managed to keep their academic thinking and political work “in separate compartments.” A similar interplay, which can be mistaken for a paradox, crops up in Anil Moonesinghe’s career: his commitment to Trotskyism, and his association with the high priest of Sinhala nationalism, Anagarika Dharmapala.
Does this constitute a contradiction, a disjuncture? That depends on whether you want to see it as one. In any case, context is important. When the LSSP was first formed in the 1930s, language and ethnicity had not become the burning, polarising issues they would become in later years. The party’s political battles were with the colonial State. They framed every issue from a radical, highly progressive standpoint: in place of English, for instance, they did not demand for Sinhala Only, they demanded for parity between Sinhala and Tamil. Making his case in parliament, N. M. Perera argued that if parity was not granted, demands for language parity would strengthen the case for federalism, or autonomy.
Against that backdrop, it seems remarkable that a scion of Dharmapala’s family could foray into Left politics, and make the kind of contribution that he did. But this is to put the cart before the horse. Fundamentally, by the time Anil Moonesinghe was born in 1927, almost no political outfit in the country envisioned a Ceylon falling outside of the British Empire.
This was as true of establishment liberals, especially those in the Ceylon National Congress, as it was of nationalist ideologues. Of the latter, the most articulate happened to be Dharmapala. Reviled by the Sinhala bourgeoisie – who, by contrast, welcomed to their ranks his brother, Edmund Hewavitharana – and hounded by colonial authorities, he remained until his last a complicated character. Indeed, as both Sarath Amunugama and Steven Kemper have shown us in their studies of the man, he spoke differently to different audiences.
The upshot of this, of course, is that different people interpret him differently today. As Amunugama has observed in The Lion’s Roar, social scientists often tag him as a chauvinist. Amunugama astutely and politely disagrees with these readings, then raises the possibility for other interpretations. However, comprehensive as it is, The Lion’s Roar overlooks some important facets to Dharmapala’s career, including his contacts with Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute, which could have raised those possibilities. My own take on this is something Amunugama does not consider: namely that in Anil Moonesinghe’s life we see, more than in any other person, including Dharmapala himself, the radical possibilities of the anti-imperialist politics often attributed to Dharmapala and his disciples.
To say this is not to uncritically adulate Moonesinghe and his work, but to recognise in his politics the kind of radical outlook which we can learn from today. Dharmapala remains as polarising a figure as he always has been. Since Ananda Guruge’s Return to Righteousness, the English Departments of this country have had a field day digging up every aspect to his life. It is above my paygrade to comment on their assertions and the ripostes of their critics. What I can say is that, as a scion of Dharmapala’s family, Moonesinghe took up the fold of Sinhala anti-imperialist nationalism – an ideology that predates Dharmapala, and goes back to the 1848 rebellion – and combined it with the Marxism of his youth.
It can validly be questioned just how Moonesinghe reconciled his lineage with Trotskyism. On the basis of its tenets, including its theory of “permanent revolution”, Regi Siriwardena describes Trotskyism as “that variety of Marxism most unsympathetic to nationalism.” I do not fundamentally disagree with this thesis. But Trotsky’s main contention was that in the peripheral, colonial societies of Asia and Africa, the bourgeoisie could not be expected to carry out a bourgeois democratic revolution.
This, to me, does not differ with Dharmapala’s attitude to the Sinhala bourgeoisie, most of whom shunned him. Sinhala nationalism, as it stood then, had its limitations, prime among them a tendency, as Hector Abhayavardhana’s quote above reveals, to view the problems of contemporary society through a medieval lens. It is these limitations that have made me sceptical of movements like Jathika Chintanaya. But it was hardly incongruent with Trotsky’s attitude to the bourgeoisie.
These are, admittedly, personal reflections, and they follow no particular order. I believe Mahinda Ariyawansa has tried to explore these facets, as his first chapter shows, though I feel that a political biography must ultimately deal with the workings, tenets, and underlying philosophy of the politics with which the subject of the biography was involved. If The Gold Standard of Honest Politics ends up as your typical biography, condemned to shelves no one pores over or looks at, a more serious biography should be taken up. This is the least we can do for a man whose contribution to every field he was involved with, in particular transport, was seminal and remains with us now. We must be grateful to Ariyawansa, but we must also realise that this is the first of many, many steps to come.
Uditha Devapriya is an independent researcher who writes on art, culture, history, politics, and society. He works at Factum, an Asia-Pacific focused Sri Lankan think-tank accessible at www.factum.lk. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.