The national question: JVP’s hobgoblin
The painful struggle between Marxism and chauvinism
Island October 22, 2011, 5:57 pm
by Kumar David
These days seem to be open season for JVP hunters, but last week and continuing today I hold that a more thoughtful and constructive engagement is the right way to go as the JVP is still the largest and most influential left party in Lanka. Intervention when a movement is torn by profound internal convulsions must deepen political intelligence so as to benefit the whole left. This requires that the JVP’s two foundational blunders, ultra-left adventurism and Sinhala chauvinism, be addressed. Last week in this column I devoted space to the urgent concern that both emerging factions in the JVP schism, and in particular the so called Gunaratnam or dissident faction, must steer clear of infantile leftism and learn to work alongside other movements. Before I move to my second topic, the national question, there is a transitional matter I need to dispose of.
The background text that I am using to underpin these two essays is The Lionel Bopage Story, subtitled ‘Rebellion, repression and the struggle for justice in Sri Lanka’, by Michael Colin Cooke, Ahahas Publications, Colombo, 2011, which traces the intertwined stories of Bopage and the JVP. Chapter 5 is a link chapter and deals with the suppression of the Insurrection by the state and the Criminal Justice Commission (Justices HNG Fernando, AC Alles, VT Thamotherum, H Deheragoda and SD Wimalaratne). It is common knowledge that the bloodlust of the state’s forces of repression which reached its horrific zenith in 1989-90 and 2008-09 had its origin in the Sirima-Felix Bandaranaike United Front period which included the LSSP and CP. Unpardonably; the UF government permitted (I will not say encouraged, in contrast to 1989-90 and the sustained anti-Tamil era) the police to torture, brutalise and kill with ruthless abandon in the aftermath of the 1971 Insurrection.
What is not so well known, and Chapter 5 brings it out well, is that corrosion of the higher judiciary, culminating in its decline into a pliant instrument in the hands of the Executive, had its origins in the CJC. The Commission made light of police brutality and extra-judicial murder, had no qualms in admitting confessions extracted under torture, and was dismissive of torture in custody of JVP cadres, Lionel included. At the present time it is most important to be reminded of the habits of our judiciary, armed forces and police.
My urgent task in this essay is to discuss the contradictions on nationality in the JVP because it is imperative that both factions revisit it root and branch. Had this been a book review and not a political essay, I could have afforded to take up Bopage and Cook’s views on the matter, but my intention is to use their book as a launching pad for my own purposes. Nevertheless, I must devote a few words to Chapter 7 dealing with the 1983 riots and the road to civil war. It is clearly the best chapter in the book and the way it is presented, it is plainly a co-authored amalgam put together by both.
Fascinatingly, the events of that time read like a first edition of what’s happening today. Interchange Mahinda for JRJ, Gotahbaya for Ranjan Wijeratne, put Champika, Duminda-Mervyn and Weerawansa in place of Cyril Mathew, Gonawela Sunil and Gamini Dissanayake and wow, you have a pretty good match of roles.
Far more important however is the policy rerun; Bonapartism, a fulsome return to neo-liberal economics, IMF dependence, authoritarian corporatism, widening income and equity gaps, a refusal to countenance a political solution to the Tamil problem, a commitment to the military jack-boot and scant respect for the press or the norms of democracy. JR too brought judges to heel, but he did it differently by firing all and reappointing those he chose. He too had an overwhelming electoral mandate, and eerily, he too united two contradictory tensions, externally a neo-liberal open economy, internally narrow racism and a push to dictatorship.
Michael Cooke surely had the Darusman Report and the contemporary triumphal war victory boom in mind when they wrote:
QUOTE: "The Sinhalese masses became historical deniers . . . Historical deniers display an acquiesce to authority; hostility towards the other, usually a defenceless and an easy target; simplistic analysis of complex circumstances; antagonism to ideas beyond their frame of reference (xenophobia); belief in purity of their own and the evil of other beliefs". UNQUOTE. (Abbreviated).
The one crucial difference is that though JR’s Bonapartism brought everyone and everything to heel (smashed the unions, choked Sirima, gagged the press, and had Cabinet and bureaucracy licking his sandals) the one obstacle his march to dictatorship stumbled on was that it failed to crush the Tamils in the war – and then India intervened. This part of the playing field is now much changed; the Mahinda regime lords it over the minorities. Its Achilles’ heel lies elsewhere, it is foreign pressures and threats that are creating havoc.
The JVP’s painful hobgoblin
The Bopage biography, actually, is rather disappointing in its failure to provide a deeper look at the debates and somersaults that gripped the JVP when it went through its rethink and subsequent de-think on the national question. Most of what he reveals is well known though it is good, as a point of reference, to have an insider’s report. What comes across is that so far as the JVP (not Lionel) goes, the so-called rethink was shallow and did not influence the ideology or theoretical orientation of the party. It was superficial and two matters were considered; fairness to Tamils and potential electoral calculations and miscalculations. Both considerations, though the former is commendable and the later tactical, is not a rethink consonant with Marxist categories.
There is a well known sentence from the Leninist cannon which goes like this: "The bourgeois nationalism of an oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support". The JVP just did not and could not get the hang of this. Before exploring why, it is fair to add that many LSSP leaders, Karalasingham included, also tripped here. Karlo’s invective of the Federal Party and Tamil Congress as communalist, pro-imperialist, pro-capitalist and reactionary, is devastating. Yes, there is some bald truth in this critique, but his Marxism misses the dialectic, he fails to grasp how oppressed nations may need to function in a given political space. The LSSP, even when it stood for minority democratic rights, still needed to lob comforting, "Don’t worry, we firmly oppose their bourgeois leaders" reassurances at Sinhala-Buddhists after the mid-1950s.
The original sin of the JVP, its social and class roots, is something that one cannot blame it for anymore than none of us can choose our parents. The largely unemployed and semi-educated young people who came together in the movement issued from rural and semi-urban Sinhalese society with little exposure to modernism or Marxism. Secondly, they were the product of a cultural milieu born of a David Hewavitarane ethos poisoned after 1956 by the ideology associated with that date. Yes true, the JVP was born into a world of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism, but the crucial point is this, it need not have been stuck there. It could have blossomed into a movement with a mature Marxist stance on the national question if the subjective factor, the leadership, had been there. Elsewhere in the world there have been revolutionary movements, whatever their other limitations, born in petty-bourgeois settings which have grown-up on the nationality issue; Maoism in China, Nepali communism, Mandela, Castro’s Cuba, and others.
It is disappointing that the official faction of the JVP is still beyond redemption and sinking deeper into communalism. Last week General Secretary Tivlin had this to say: "The JVP will fight till the fall of its last member if the Provincial Councils that lead the country towards separatism are brought back. The Provincial Councils in the North and East will not be the same as PCs in the South; they will have land and police powers. More powers will be vested to raise foreign funds. We will fight them." The Eelam-card is being played again, shamelessly.
The next stage
Nevertheless the nationalism of the JVP is different from the chauvinism manifested by the JHU and the S-B extremist cults on the fringes of the UPFA. The latter are rooted in Mahavamsa mythology, the Buddha’s visit, and the pristine place of the Sinhalese race. This creed did not fit the secular and left minded JVP which founded its Sinhala nationalism on the theory of Indian-expansionism and not Mahavamsa mythology. This alternative offered an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist receptacle for containing nationalism. In Wijeweera’s third lecture and in the anti-IPKF period it took sharp expression. The lecture has since been jettisoned, the attitude to Upcountry Tamils has changed, and the crass oversimplifications of anti-Indianism may perhaps be re-evaluated by the dissidents.
Even the most cursory reading of the Bopage-Cooke book makes it clear that the rethink on the national question was skin deep. There is no reason to believe that any leader, other than Bopage, was involved in a deeper reformulation of the national question. Lionel used his influence with Wijeweera to cajole him to temporarily flip on self-determination and nationality, but he flopped back when he ran into the first serious hurdle. There was no re-evaluation of theoretical underpinnings, no re-reading of Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg, and no expansion of the leadership mind-set. It is patent that Lionel was an odd man out, a lone figure. As for the JVP’s large cadre base, obviously there could have been no re-education; how can you teach when teachers are uneducated. Now a wake up call is long overdue.
It is unfortunate that though the JVP grew up with the excitement of Vietnam, Cuba, and the splendid 1960s in the West, it also lived with barrenness in international Marxism. The late sixties and early seventies was the heyday of the huge Red Guard counter-revolution and Mao’s slow decline into clinical lunacy; Guevara-Castroism, for all its revolutionary romanticism, contributed little of intellectual value, and the JVP was hostile to and excluded from the Trotskyite sects of the day, in some of which useful insights were being developed, because these sects were on the political fringe of big events - except the student upsurge of the late sixties.
Globalisation in the last three decades followed by and the post-2007 collapse, the New Depression, has made everything deadly serious. The schism in the JVP could not have come at a better time. It is an opportunity for rethinking modernism, nationalism and creative international Marxism.