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How can the Sri Lankan left be rebuilt or new left built?

Sumanasiri Liyanage
The theme of the well-attended public seminar of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (Revolutionary) held in Kandy last Wednesday read as ‘the second innings of the neo-liberal capitalism and the challenges of the left’. Comrade Pubudu Jagoda, an alumnus of the Moratuwa University and politburo member of the JVP, delivered a well-planned talk on the subject.
His nearly two-hour long, lucid presentation was very well received by the audience. The talk can be divided into two sections, while the first part dealt with what is meant by the second innings of neo-liberal capitalism, the second focused on the challenge/s of the left.

Comrade Jagoda proposed that the left should be humble enough to admit its past mistakes and its future strategy and tactics have to be devised on the basis of self-criticism. It was interesting that he did not engage in usual blame game naming any particular individual. His focus was on issues, not individuals. Generally, like many others in the audience, I liked the talk and the way it was delivered. So what follows are my critical reflections.

Jagoda began with a brief history of capitalism with particular focus on how it evolved from its social democratic phase (1930- 1975) to contemporary neo-liberal phase (1975 onwards). Nobody expects a detailed nuanced analysis on the subject in a public lecture of this kind.

However, it is not irrelevant to note that it is only partly true as Comrade Jagoda analyzed that social democracy was in one sense a response of the bourgeoisie to crisis of capitalism that surfaced at the aftermath of the World War I. Social democracy on the other hand had marked the relative strength of the proletariat particularly in the advanced capitalistic countries. The long period of the Keynesian pump-priming, heavy state expenditure on social welfare, the rising share of wages in the GDP at the expense of capitalist profit had marked the crisis of social welfarism in the late 1960s. It was in this context that varying theories of neo-liberalism surfaced and neo-liberal academics began to campaign for a change.

However, this shock therapy was put into practice much later after breaking the spine of the working class movement. Thus, miners’ strike in the UK was crushed by the Thatcher government and the striking air traffic controllers were sacked by President Ronald Reagan. Neo-liberal shock treatment was tested first in the third world, first in Chile after the assassination of social democrat president Salvador Allende in 1971.

Reflecting on Jagoda’s analysis on social democracy, I tend to believe the analysis was an outcome of over-generalization and it should be improved by a more nuanced analysis because social democratic parties in Europe have been mass based workers’ parties and as a result of the continuous pressure, social democratic and labour governments were forced to offer a wide range of goods and services that workers and the toiling masses sought after. I am raising this issue as it would facilitate the argument that I wish to put forth presently.

In my opinion, the second part of Jagoda’s speech — what are the challenges for the left? — was critical, as it was intended as a justification for the current internal conflict of the JVP. According to him, the second phase (‘innings’) of neo-liberal capitalism began in Sri Lanka in 2009 with the commencement of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term as President?

However, he did not inform us when it began internationally. Is the second phase a specific Sri Lankan phenomenon? Michael Mann has remarked that “the greatest contribution of the historian to the methodology of social sciences is the date” by which he meant the importance of careful periodization in explaining the evolution of social phenomenon. For, ‘when things happened is essential to establishing causality’.

Why 2009 not 2002? Why not 1994? It seems that some subjective element was in operation here. Comrade Jagoda wanted to establish an argument that the degeneration of JVP politics began not when the party formed a coalition with the SLFP in 2005 just before the Parliamentary election in April but when the JVP decided to back Sarath Fonseka and joining forces with the UNP in the process. On the contrary, a careful Marxist observer would identify very basic theoretical mistakes of the JVP in its formative years.

One of the most critical of them has been JVP’s position on the national question. In spite of some zigzagging throughout its 45 years of existence, the JVP’s position on the national question has remained anti-Leninist. Of course, its position on the issue has some affinity with the position of Rosa Luxemburg on the subject. Humble and genuine self-reflection and self-criticism call for a careful analysis of the long history of the party.

However, it is interesting to note that comrade Jagoda took very strong anti-nationalist position in his analysis of the current political trends and developments and stressed that the re-organization of the party should be on such an anti-nationalist programme. This is commendable.

Now let me come to the critical issue of how a new left movement can be built? In other words, how the Sri Lankan left can be rebuilt? This is really a difficult question and I do not think that any single person has a definite and comprehensive answer to this question. Why do we need socialism/ communism? I think the answer comrade Jagoda gave at the Kandy meeting is absolutely correct, but too general and abstract.

Capitalism promises individual happiness; but it fails to offer it. Instead capitalism forces people to enter into a vicious circle of searching happiness that the majority cannot achieve in their lifetime. Jagoda’s analysis was based on, in my opinion, Marxist notion of alienation.

Hence, socialism/ communism is the only way to break this vicious circle of unhappiness. On the basis of this analysis, Jagoda wanted to place socialism at a higher level and situation it as an ethical issue. People can achieve freedom in real sense only in socialist/ communist society.

This is how Marx defined post-capitalist society. Capitalism is against human freedom. The question I would like pose is: Can a broad-based left movement be built on the basis of this ethical issue? Can people be mobilized to build a new society based on different principles on a social programme focusing on alienation?

The strength of capitalism from the social formation of previous time is that capitalism can deceive people hiding inequality as equality, ‘unfreedom’ as freedom. Making people fully conscious of this is a herculean task. Social revolution happens not because people become fully conscious of the fact that they live in a society where what is made out to be real is not so.

Revolution happens when ‘rage capital’ is put into operation. Rage capital emerges from real issues like poverty, unemployment, marginalization, lack of basic needs, and so on. Social democracy addressed those issues and tried to resolve them within the given capitalistic framework. It was partly successful when the capitalist economy was in upswing.

The difference between social democratic politics and revolutionary politics is that the latter use the rage capital emanating from social problems to overthrow the capitalistic system. In my opinion the JVP (R) is on the correct path when it focuses on building a left movement in which the party is only one essential component. Social welfare and social revolution are dialectically linked.

The tragedy of left politics so far has been that it has allowed to link social welfare with social reforms that are becoming scarce. Hence JVP (R) has to produce a comprehensive social programme addressing the issues related to poverty, marginalization, exclusion and disillusion not capitulating to nationalism, liberalism and fake democracy


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