Revisiting Newton Gunasinghe: A critique of two essays


In the aftermath of the July 1983 riots, Newton Gunasinghe authored two pieces on what happened and what had to be done. This is a critique of those two essays.

The first Marxist anthropologist Sri Lanka ever produced, Newton Gunasinghe revolutionised social science scholarship across the country. Gunasinghe’s contribution to anthropology has been nothing short of remarkable. While that contribution did not go unacknowledged, however, no proper appraisal of it was made for some time.

It was eight years after his death, in 1996, that the Social Scientists’ Association brought out a collection of his writings; this had been preceded by the publication of his doctoral thesis on Kandyan social relations, in 1990. Today he remains a familiar and authoritative name to students of social science, particularly those of agrarian studies.

To fully appreciate his contribution to these domains, one must realise that his forays into anthropology and agrarian studies were unprecedented. Jayadeva Uyangoda noted this in his obituary to the man when he observed that until those forays, “concrete studies on Sri Lankan society were not the strong point in our Marxist tradition.” Anthropology, a child of colonialism, had long been dominated by a “liberal tradition”, epitomised by the likes of Ralph Pieris and Gananath Obeyesekere. I am not sure what Uyangoda means here – is he implying that Pieris and Obeyesekere were not influenced by Marx, or that they did not resort to Marxist methodology? – nor do I understand his point that Marxist scholars here did not combine theory with field research in their analyses of class [i].

Uyangoda in his tribute implies that Marxist scholars before Gunasinghe’s time were preoccupied with an economistic view of society. Again, I am not sure what he means – did Marxist scholars from before his time exclude every other criterion in favour of material factors, or did they merely sideline such criteria, like those of identity and ethnicity? – but I think he is right when he suggests that Gunasinghe’s strength lay in his ability to bring together different scholarly strands and traditions into a cohesive whole, without limiting himself to classical Marxism. Nor did he limit himself to academic circles: when he was not delving into political economy, he was, as Dayan Jayatilleka noted in a correspondence with me, sampling the wonders of Frank Herbert and Dune.

Gunasinghe also involved himself with working class and peasant movements. Here we can discern a pivotal transformation: from initial engagements with trade unions, he moved on to wider, bigger concerns and institutions, most prominently the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE), by the late 1970s. Fittingly enough, this signified a much larger intellectual shift, from his preoccupation with political economy to his later excursions into the role of ideology in the formation of social structures.

What such shifts entailed, in turn, was a change in focus from economic and material factors to ideological concerns, problems, and transformations. It is from this standpoint that we can approach, and fully appreciate, the essays Gunasinghe wrote on Sinhala-Tamil relations in the early 1980s. By then, having immersed himself in Gramsci and Althusser, Gunasinghe had turned from the “official Marxism” of political parties and doctrinaire theorists – or so Uyangoda implies – to a re-reading of Marxist theory itself. That crops up discernibly in his observations on Sinhala rural society before, during, and after colonialism, and the impact of the opening up of the economy on interethnic relations after 1977. It is the latter issue, and Gunasinghe’s take on it, that I wish to examine and engage with in this piece.

In two essays written to the Lanka Guardian following the 1983 riots, Gunasinghe tried to explain why clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils peaked after 1977. Gunasinghe’s view was that the J. R. Jayewardene government’s liberalisation of the economy had enabled a level playing field for Sinhala and Tamil business interests. This implies that what prevailed until 1977, especially between 1970 and 1977 under the United Front, had been a regulated economy that, through foreign exchange controls, controls on the banking and credit sector, and political patronage, had protected Sinhala mercantile interests.

With a shift from social welfare to the achievement of high economic growth at all costs, the Jayewardene administration ensured the slow demise of those interests at the expense of interethnic amity. For Gunasinghe, that revealed a link between the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government’s patronage of the Sinhala trading class, the Jayewardene regime’s disregard for such groups, and the bottling up and explosion of conflicts between Sinhala and Tamil urban elements.

What helped or rather did not help with these conflicts was the favouritism meted out to the Sinhala youth by the Bandaranaike regime via university standardisation schemes and land reforms. In other words, under a regime of controls and standardisation, a largely Sinhala middle-class cordoned itself off from the world economy.

Gunasinghe’s conclusion is not so much that all this resulted in a rupture in interethnic relations as that they replaced the class dimensions of the conflict with its ethnic character. Following Althusser, he diagnosed this as a case of “overdetermination”, whereby one set of contradictions (ethnic) had prevailed over another (class). In an article written on the May 1, 1984 issue of the Lanka Guardian, he offered his solution: before opposing the Jayewardene administration, the opposition had to first combat chauvinist elements within its ranks, so as to prevent the replacement of class struggle by ethnic conflict.

My critique of Gunasinghe’s approach in these essays is two-fold. Firstly, he takes statistical data in support of his theory of Sinhala traders being propped up by protectionist measures. Secondly, he seems to view this as a necessary precondition of conflicts and rifts between the Sinhalese and Tamils.

The issue for me is that while the first can be empirically verifiable – and Gunasinghe does prove it – the second flows from his view that ethnicity trumped class considerations owing to the withdrawal of State patronage from Sinhala mercantile interests and the opening up of the economy. While this is true and cannot be denied, it nevertheless conceals more complex realities: for instance, the privileges that accrued to minority businessmen as a result of those same protectionist measures.

One example would suffice here. In an earlier essay Gunasinghe had noted how the UNP’s policies hit Tamil farmers hard in areas like Kopay in Jaffna. Yet he does not give such points their due weight, nor does he link them to his analysis of the link between the UF and the UNP administrations with respect to Sinhala-Tamil tensions [ii]. These are, in my view, glaring omissions, not least because they reveal the class character of those tensions.

Althusserian considerations of overdetermination aside, such case studies are essential to any discussion of ethnic conflict, because they reveal the subtle nuances of such conflicts and draw a bigger picture: a point that Asoka Bandarage raises in her book on the separatist war in Sri Lanka. To contend, as Gunasinghe along with certain other intellectuals did, that the period between 1960 and 1977 was marked by a relative calm because of the State’s protection of Sinhala trading interests, would be to ignore the equally relevant protection given by that State to peasant interests of whatever ethnic persuasion. Far from revealing the dangers of ethnicity prevailing over (or “overdetermining”) class and material struggles, then, such arguments allow the former category to subsume the latter.

I am, of course, by no means denying the validity of Gunasinghe’s claim that ethnic conflicts are a hindrance to the class struggle. They are, and they should be addressed. Yet if there’s anything to comment about the trajectory of social science scholarship in Sri Lanka, it’s the persistence with which scholars draw racial lines over issues of relative advantage. Sinhala and Tamil nationalists are wrong in assuming that ethnicity determines everything. Ironically enough, their critics tend to use a not too different criterion when opposing them.

None less than Engels noted the futility of caving into a narrow economistic reading of material concerns [iii]. Yet it would be a travesty of Marxist scholarship if we are to subsume one category with another. In another essay I will examine the flaws of inserting ethnicity and ethno-nationalist ideology into material issues: an approach that, as Jayadeva Uyangoda informs us in his tribute, Gunasinghe himself appeared to depart from in his last few years, in favour of one grounded in political economy.

What we can say about the two essays he wrote about the 1983 riots, then, is that while they provided an insight into what was going wrong with Sri Lanka’s polity at the time, this was hardly the only insight one could draw. For a more complete picture, we need to dig deeper. That is a point social scientists in Sri Lanka seem to avoid – perhaps for reasons known only to them.

[i] To suppose that no Marxist scholar had engaged with rural social structures prior to Gunasinghe’s interventions is wrong. One only has to read Hector Abhayavardhana’s essays on plantation workers, Sinhala-Tamil relations, and Sinhala chauvinism, to see this isn’t true.

[ii] Had he done so, he would have noted that Jaffna electorates overwhelmingly voted for the candidate of the “Sinhala nationalist” SLFP over the UNP. In Kopay, Hector Kobbekaduwa, the SLFP’s candidate, obtained more than 58 percent of the vote, easily beating Kumar Ponnambalam.

[iii] Engels to Joseph Bloch, London, September 21, 1890: “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it.”

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