MANIFESTO FOR AN ALTERNATIVE SOCIETY
By RICHARD DE SOYZA
[The last article Richard wrote to publish]
The Island-Sunday Edition -11th February of 1990
(A week before the assassination*)
Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara's essay on 'Jathika Chintanaya'(National Ideology*)which appeared in The Island on28th was an essentialy a reply to Reggie Siriwardane's Doric de Souza Memorial Lecture, which was published in the 'Sunday Island' two weeks before.
Barely into his third paragraph, Dr. Amarasekara makes a startling pronouncement. He says that without understanding Jathika Chintanaya "how else are we to understand these unbelievable changes which are taking place right now in the entire communist world ?"
Anywhere else, I would imagine. Surely Dr. Amarasekara must be aware that the current upsurge of the ethnic unrest that is taking place within the Soviet Union as well as the process by which the countries of Eastern Europe attempting to wipe out the legacy 40 years of socialism imposed from above and from beyond their borders, is the result of precisely the kind of politics that his Jathika Chitanaya implies ?
The central flaw in his argument [I did read (Dr. Amarasekara' book*)Ganaduru Mediyama Dakinemi Arunalu] is a logical one. He argues, simultaneously, that there is a need for a Jathika Chintanaya, and that in fact such a thing already exists. If indeed it exists, then there is no 'need' for it. If it does not exist, then there are two options. One is to wait until it emerges through a dialectical process in society. The other is to impose it. When the argument is developed by a liberal thinker like Dr. Amarasekara, one may assume that he is waiting for a social process to take place. But it is equally clear that he is aware that when men of ideas propound theories, these are liable to be picked up by politicians- especially in a society as bankrupt of ideas as ours.
In a hasty little disclaimer at the end of Ganaduru Mediyama.., Dr. Amarasekara disassociated his ideas with JVP(People's Liberation Front*) led violence that was beginning to mount at the time the collection of essays was published. At the time the JVP was generally perceived to be fairly closed to the Jathika Chintanaya in its core philosophy. Ironically it was not long before the JVP itself had begun to distance itself from the Jathika Chintanaya boys, led by Dr. Nalin de Silva. As the JVP tried to infuse its struggle for state power with Marx-Leninist characteristics it recoiled from the narrow indigenous and semi-racist slant that had by then been given to Dr. Amarasekara,s nobly-meant but woolly-minded theory.
What is happening in Soviet Union now is because under Stalin it moved a long way away from the basic principles that Lenin enunciated on the accession of state and peoples into a whole. Even though he was not always true to his own principles, Lenin treated them as principles, to be observed as far as possible.
In a non Communist context, this was precisely the attitude that Nehru too tried to adopt- with less success, because of the constricting nature of the bourgeois state he and Gandhi created- towards the non-Hindi parts of Indian Union. Stalin's attempt to safeguard the Socialist Revolution from the advancing tide of US capitalism resulted in the creation of that paradox, a 'Communist Empire', which in fact turned out to be neither.
The India military-political establishment's insecurity after the 1962 Sino-Indian war increasingly isolated Nehru, a would be dove among the hawks who gradually increased degree of military presence in all India's Northeastern states. Punjab and Kashmir may be the hot issues of the day the people of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur or Assam(not to mention Sikkim) refer to 'Indians' , implying that they are not a part of that larger national identity. There were and Stalin's USSR, and they damn well alienated the minorities, outside meddling or not. And at least India and Soviet Union had a Nehru and a Lenin, even though each of these had to bow to political reality.
All we ever had, by contrast was the real politik of the Senanayakes, Bandaranayakes and master of the game- Jayawardane. The Indian Union and the Soviet Union are under the threat due to the failure of their leaders to realise the dangers of going for a 'transcendant culture' despite the undoubted economic advantages that have occurred to at least some parts of those countries inhabited by minorities. Our minorities got next to nothing in comparison, and Dr. Amarasekara's "way of thinking...that is neither an 'ism nor a new political ideology" has only provided a philosophical underpinning of racism of the worst kind.
As I said, this is not what Dr. Amarasekara intended. But what is he left with at the end of of his search for a Jathika Chintanaya ? A strain of "indegenous intellectuals"- and he names Anagarika Dharmapala, Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Munidasa Kumaratunge, Gunapala Malalasekara and Martin Wickramasinghe. Apart from the fact that this seems to suggest that there were either no Tamil or Muslim intellectuals or that the Tamils and Muslims are not indigenous to this island (which gives rise to the interesting question of who is- the tenth century migrant to the North from Tamilnadu who remained 'Tamil', or the 13th century migrant to the South from Kerala who dropped the 'Malabar' and became 'Salagama') to find anything in common between that great rationalist and that great humbug Anagarika Dharmapala really takes a lot of doing. All the Anagarika did was to graft Victorian middle class morality, with its strong puritan strain, onto bourgeois Buddhism. Culturally, the results were appalling- prudery where it did not exist, charity of the most patronising kind, and abominations like the 'Bakthi gee Karaththay'(Buddhust carol-cart*) and 'Vesak card'(Buddhust greeting-card*). If anybody saw the world through "borrowed glasses " of his colonial masters, it was the Anagarika. He gave the rural petit bourgeois a sense of cultural arrogance; Bandaranayake gave some of them an economic mobility; neither imbued them with any sense of concern for the rungs; of society below them or for those from their own class who they would leave behind in there race to emulate first their white and then their brown masters; neither educated them in the notion that they were not the sole inhabitants of this island and that myths and past glories are not a strong enough basis for coping with rival aspirations of 30 percent-strong minorities. The old left and the JVP have traded accusations of being basically petit bourgeois and it is perfectly true that neither the dogma of the one nor the revolutionary fervour of the other proved sufficient to dent this smug, self assured mentality enough to gather real mass support.
Dr. Amarasekara comes a little closer to the truth when he talks of a homogenous culture that has come into being as a result of the way of life of an agricultural community. He adds immediately after, "..based on a long hydraulic civilization and under a humane benign religion", Dr. Amarasekara's definition applies equally well to practically any of the rice-growing societies of South, Southeast and East Asia, all of which came under the influence of Buddhism which has left a more or less permanent impact on all of them. But what is more important is that, take away Buddhism and you are left with a definition of agrarian societies anywhere in the world.
There are cultural similarities among all of them, because their economic life is similar. The specific element that make up a culture - language and dress, rites and rituals- can differ in their physical details. But the compound of all these creates a way of life, and that compound owes its nature to the kind of economic activity the community indulges in. It is this that could eventually create a "transcendant culture", if such a thing is possible. One has only to examine the swiftness with which capitalist industrial production has, in a matter of two centuries, created a fairly homogenous urban culture, which can be divided more easily horizontally, on economic/ class lines, but less easily along ethnic along to realise this.
And this is where Reggie Siriwardane I fear, fails in his passionate cry for "tolerance, openness, pluralism - towards the cultural traditions of various ethnic groups in our society as well as towards international cultures", to understand the nature of the dynamic that drives ethnic groups towards schism. Referring to discussions he has had with Soviet intellectuals and scholars, he quotes as saying that " in the past it was too easily assumed that ethnic identities could be erased by being absorbed in a larger entity... the more realistic course would be to live with these identities but to try to contain them in such a way that they would not express themselves in antagonistic and destructive forms."
Now the word 'containment' is harsh, and it is surprising to find it lurking among the liberal sentiments articulated by Siriwardane. But its very presence indicates that he -or at any rate his Soviet intellectuals- are aware of certain political realities within the framework of a modern nation-state. That is the centre allows identities in the periphery to assume too much importance within the whole, the balance of the state gets lost. Most modern nation-states are federations of different tribal, ethnic or national identities. How long those states will survive will depend on the nature of the relationship between their centres and peripheries. This in turn is generally is determined by the success or otherwise of governments of building a national economic base which supports an infrastructure which draws the peripheries towards the centre.
This is the flaw in the argument in favour of 'tolerance, openness and pluralism' in the absence of a strong national- and I mean national, not international- economic structure which will help convince minorities that they are a component part of national production. Reggie is quite right it is all wrong to teaching all languages to all children unless you are going to continue doing so. But it is even worse to teach both national languages to Sri Lankan children if they are not going to be used in national economic life. From that point of view Dr. Amarasekara's "individual.. who is an amalgamation of multi cultural bits' - a polished polyglot and nothing else (and this was meant to be Reggie, then the Good Doctor errs) - is to be avoided because he or she is of little use to anyone. While the political reality that the Jathika Chintanaya produces can be intolerant and bigoted, well-meant pluralism can be hijacked by anyone who patches together the lowest common denominators of all cultural forms and comes up with a cosmetic mix that only hides the hopelessly ravaged face of the society that lies underneath. This what happening in this country at the moment in the name of the 'popular culture' that some parts of the ruling establishment have seized with such glee'. Medicant men of God, traveling circuses and politicians masquerading as poets are not the stuff of which stable, pluralistic nations can be built.
The answer is surely a secular state- truly secular, with no icons except the institutions of the state itself, and guided by the principles of sound management within an ideological framework which does not carry within itself the seeds of either extremism of Jathika Chintanaya or the potential anarchy of cultural populism. I suggest that Marx-Leninism in its original form does provide the theoretical basis, which must be flexible enough to accommodate the strains arise along the way. It is not weakened not cynical to declare that politics is the art of the possible, as long as one does not equate 'possible' with 'anything goes'.
On the other hand bashing Stalin today because it is fashionable to do so is not good enough. In fairness to Reggie, he has been doing so for several years. But it is well worth arguing whether the tactical decision Stalin took to wild together a bulwark of US power in Europe in the 1940's should have been reviewed in the 1950's, 60's or 70's. The nationalisms sweeping Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union are a clear repudiation of an extended form of Jathika Chintanaya- the idea of a "Greater Russia"- not a failure of Communism. And if all that liberation brings the people of Rumania is Coca Cola and blue jeans- the flag bearers of 'thuppahi'(borrowed and imposed from outside*) culture anywhere in the world- then I cannot agree with Reggie either.
* Definitions and descriptions given by Sithijaya Media Organization