The rise of the Jathika Chintanaya in the 1980s must be traced to the descent, and the capitulation, of the Old Left.
The Jathika Chintanaya which emerged in the 1980s continues to exert a considerable influence on mainstream politics and popular opinion here today. Their contribution to historiography is just one of several, but I strongly believe it was their most significant. At their forefront were Gunadasa Amarasekara, the greatest writer to emerge from post-1956 Sri Lanka still with us, and Nalin de Silva, who as Amarasekara pointed out gave the movement “a solid philosophical foundation.”
The movement certainly did not emerge in or from a vacuum: it was shaped, nurtured, and fostered by the post-1977 social, political, cultural, and economic configuration, against the backdrop of a rightwing, entrenched, and authoritarian State that unleashed what it euphemistically called “reforms” – or “letting the robber barons in” as president at the time proclaimed – and in one go crippled trade unions, emasculated the Left, and created a void that had been filled before by the Marxists.
The UNP came to power on a platform of “free market” neoliberal economic development. Led by J. R. Jayewardene, who as a student had been a supporter if not an admirer of the Communist Party, the new regime promulgated a new constitution which transformed the country from a parliamentary democracy to an executive presidency. Within two years, he had opened up the economy and privatised vast swathes of the public sector. Sri Lanka was the first country in South Asia to embark on neoliberal reforms, predating not just India but also Britain and the US; the New York Times in its obituary of Jayewardene described these as having “modernised [the] nation he led for 11 years.”
But the modernisation he oversaw came at a cost. Within three years, every other sector of the economy had been deregulated or privatised. The results were swift. Budget deficits soared, and so did inflation, which increased to as much as 30% or 40%, while food subsidies and import controls were clamped down or terminated.
The hardest hit was the working class. In 1980, responding to the high costs of living, fuelled by privatisations of, inter alia, the transport sector – which led to a rise in bus fares of 80% – around 1,024 trade unions comprising more than 400,000 State and private sector workers led demonstrations against the government’s policies. More so than Thatcher and Reagan would do in the face of similar union uprisings, Jayewardene’s government put down the strike and sacked 40,356 workers (various accounts put the number at 70,000, some others as high as 150,000). In a single stroke, the State fragmented the Left.
Throughout parts of the developing world where the rise of rightwing governments and the descent of the Left resulted in an intellectual void filled earlier by the Left, cultural-religious revivalism took the place of Marxist alternatives. Dependency theorists were well aware and wrote on how the ascent of neo-liberalism would be succeeded by revivalist programs led by what Samir Amin referred to as “religious antiquarians.”
Marxist movements, meanwhile, went the way of all flesh: either they mobilised a massive backlash against the government, as they did in much of Latin America including Nicaragua, or they transformed into radical establishment parties ostensibly opposed to the State, but in the long run dependent on funds from foreign aid agencies. Sections of the “Old Left”, as it was called, drifted into the “traditional” enemy, the UNP, and formed death squads (like the PRRA) against the “New Left”, i.e. the JVP, which opposed the Indo-Lanka Accord that the UNP had signed and the Old Left supported.
Among university students in the mid-1980s the most dominant ideological formations were those of the Old Left and the JVP, which engaged in deadly confrontations with each other (leading to the killing of several student leaders, including Daya Pathirana), and the Jathika Chintanaya, which did not ally itself with either groups but which had, in its own special way, more in common with the JVP than the Old Left.
Many of the JVP’s student cadres emerged from the rural petty bourgeoisie, while a part of the Jathika Chintanaya in local universities – especially the science and engineering faculties of Colombo and Moratuwa – emerged from a suburban Sinhala middle class.
By the decade’s end, the Old Left movement had passed away, and been cremated: many of its members drifted away in the 1990s to an amorphous blend of post-neo-Marxism and postmodernism that, while not exerting a significant influence, nevertheless posed as a “marketable” alternative to Marxism. JVP student groups, crushed in the insurrection, were yet to re-emerge.
The relationship between the Sinhala middle bourgeoisie, which later became influential patrons of the Jathika Chintanaya, and J. R. Jayewardene’s neoliberal reforms was at best ambiguous. Newton Gunasinghe noted that they were more inclined towards the Sirimavo Bandaranaike economy since it was, as Dayan Jayatilleka has argued, “more advantageous vis-à-vis their ethnic minority economic competitors than the relatively level playing field of the Open Economy.”
I find these statements and remarks incomplete, if not superficial. Gunasinghe made his observation in a Lanka Guardian article dated November 1983, i.e. after the anti-Tamil riots, when calls were being made by militant nationalists against the Pettah (Tamil and Muslim) merchants. Jayatilleka, on the other hand, makes his sweeping generalisation quoting Gunasinghe in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where he sees in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration’s protectionist stance towards the economy an act of pandering to the same militant Sinhala Buddhist nationalists who opposed the Open Economy in the months following July 1983. As always, the problem is one of context.
The Sinhala middle bourgeoisie who had rallied against minority Pettah merchants had by the late 1980s changed. In Ranasinghe Premadasa they found, if not a saving grace, then a prophetic figure. They no longer opposed neoliberal reforms, because Premadasa had in his own way transmogrified it, sweetening the pill by his paradoxical incorporation of garment factories in the village and rapid deregulation plus privatisation in the city.
Both Jayatilleka and Tisaranee Gunasekera saw in the Premadasa regime an alternative model of development to both socialism and neo-liberalism, in which the task and challenge was “to find ways and means to fight poverty and all its attendant social ills within the broad framework of an open economic strategy [my emphasis – U. D.].”
Rhetoric aside, it was a populist variant of the neoliberal pill administered since 1977, and it appealed to sections of the middle bourgeoisie who had earlier yearned for a return to the closed economy. When Jayatilleka cites Newton Gunasinghe’s observations from post-1983, then leapfrogs to the present, he hence disregards not just differences in context but also the Premadasa factor that peddled the two worlds of neo-liberalism and populism; this straddling of “capitalism” and “populism” has continued ever since, one of its avatars being Chandrika Kumaratunga’s “neo-liberalism with a human face.”
To be continued…