Opinion

An alternative reading of the Jathika Chintanaya (Part II)

Summary

The Jathika Chintanaya has got it more right than most Left outfits and NGOs on the problems ailing our economy.

By the end of the 1980s you had three broad political formations. You had the Old Left which merged with a neo-post-Marxist-postmodernist “left” ideology, you had the JVP which would recede after the second insurrection but would rebound in parliament and universities, and you had the Jathika Chintanaya outfits.

Different milieus identified with different political formations, with sections of the petty bourgeoisie identifying itself with the Premadasa-ist UNP and the Jathika Chintanaya, and other sections clinging on to the post-Marxist formations and many others holding on to the JVP.

The Sinhala middle bourgeoisie à la Gunasinghe and Jayatilleka were in the meantime with either the Premadasa-ist UNP or the Jathika Chinatanaya. There was some alignment between the UNP and the Old Left, as the latter’s involvement in the second insurrection showed.

The Jathika Chintanaya, on the other hand, showed some solidarity and indeed even sympathised with the JVP, but this did not bring about even a tacit consensus between these two in the way that their support for the Indo-Lanka Accord brought the UNP and the Old Left together. In that peculiar scheme of things, the Jathika Chintanaya – detached from other alliances, with the JVP out of the picture until its later entry to parliament – came to play an important though largely unacknowledged role.

An article by Gunadasa Amarasekara to The Island (“Lessons from Corona”, May 3, translated from a Sinhala article in the Divaina of that same date which reads better, “Coronava ugannana padam”) sheds light on what that role was, on what they as a movement believed in, and on how it was more in tune with the historical, cultural, and political realities of the country than either the Premadasa-ist UNP and Old Left and neo-post-Marxist-postmodernist (I call it “NPMPM”) movements, or the later JVP which, as the involvement in it of “radical” NPMPM artists and academics indicates, has given up its Marxist-populist roots in favour of a pseudo-Marxist lumpen ideology.

To put this very succinctly, in the 1980s much of the Left in Sri Lanka forwent on class struggles and issues of relative disadvantage, to focus almost exclusively on what critics have called “micro-politics”, such as ethnic identity and gender rights. One consequence of this was a virtual erasure of the class debate. Historical realities were also jettisoned by new left formations, and in ignoring those realities they marginalised class relations in favour of ethnic politics. The Jathika Chintanaya, no matter how crudely it set about its new task, provided a counter-narrative to these falsifications of history. It also attempted to come up with an alternative to the Premadasa model of development.

Gunadasa Amarasekara was in many ways more correct and prescient than most in highlighting the need for industry across the country. Though he underscored it from an ethnic viewpoint – seeing in the mobilisation of industry a means of correcting historical wrongs committed against Sinhala Buddhists – the fact that he highlighted it, starting from his pamphlet Jathika Chintanaya saha Jathika Arthikaya, put him at the forefront of a struggle that had once been wielded by the Left. For its part the latter, having substituted identity politics for the more important dynamic of class and labour, misinterpreted history.

One such misinterpretation, which continues to be made today despite evidence to the contrary, is that the British, by having destroyed so-called feudal modes of life, transformed Sri Lanka into a modern State. The fact that writers such as Victor Ivan (once card carrying members of the JVP) can repeat this oft-quoted myth, and without quoting a single statistic claim that by independence we had the best road network, the best railway service, and the best harbour in Asia, is hardly a point in favour of intellectuals who claim to stand for radical systemic change in the country, whether or not as “radical centrists.”

Another misconception of these new left-liberal formations is the role that “colonial capital” is supposed to have played in “developing” the economy. Once again, we have to turn to former JVP ideologues who argue that, by inundating the country with capital from abroad, Britain sped up the destruction of pre-capitalist modes of production and social relations. This is far from the truth, and it was not Gunadasa Amarasekara who pointed it out; Marx had done so too centuries ago, when he made his very crucial distinction between merchant capital and production capital.

This bitter truth, consistently ignored by both the Right and the mainstream Left over here, is at the bottom of most of our troubles. From an ethnicised perspective at least, the only ideologue who pointed that out was Amarasekara; as he has contended, continued dependence on tea, garment factories, remittances from the Middle East, and tourism can only lead to further deterioration, even as economists still recommend tea exports and tourism as the way out. In that sense “new left formations” share the same myths indulged by pro-market and anti-left think-tanks; their inability to distinguish between forms of capital has become, today, their biggest, most palpable failure.

My point is that in the wake of the collapse of communism, new sources of funding found their way to Left parties in much of the Third World. Development economists and theorists who had, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, been warning of the failure of bourgeois elites in the Third World to delink their countries from the capitalist world order, implied that the legitimacy lost by the “new left formations” would be taken over by cultural revivalists.

They did not note this as a positive development; in fact as Samir Amin wrote, it was certain to dismantle these countries further. But what else could be expected from the refusal of post-Marxism to offer a constructive critique of capitalism, globalisation, and neo-liberalism? Their refusal has been their undoing, even today.

These reflections do not end here. There are critiques to be made, problems to be solved, lies to be revealed. The fact is that Jathika Chintanaya, in espousing the need for a jathika arthikaya, offered a diagnosis to a problem which the Left had ably taken on and tried to resolve before its coming apart in the late 1980s.

Certainly, that does not preclude the JC from critique either. But a further examination of those lies and myths perpetuated by the “new left formations”, including the NPMPM, the JVP, remnants of the Old Left (like the NSSP), on the one hand, and rightwing think-tanks which for some reason ignore the need for industrialisation on the other, is needed before getting into that.

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