Not yet another coalition
James Harvey looks at the storming of government buildings, the danger from the army and the prospects for winning a real Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
Reports of Sri Lanka’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fleeing the country were immediately greeted with further militant demonstrations against the corrupt political elite that has brought the country’s economy to collapse.
The government, under acting president Ranil Wickremesinghe, responded with the declaration of a state of emergency, curfews and the suspension of the state television service. Teargas and water cannon were used, unsuccessfully, to disperse the large crowds massed outside the prime minister’s office and other government buildings. Army and police lines were broken, and the prime minister’s office occupied. The immediate demand of the Jana Aragalaya movement has been for the resignation of Rajapaksa and now Wickremesinghe.
The background to the mass discontent is, of course, the dire state of the Sri Lankan economy: sales of petrol have been suspended, schools and medical services shut, and soaring prices have put many basic foodstuffs far beyond the reach of the lowest paid. Anger has been focused on the Rajapaksa family - a political dynasty whose members have held the posts of president, prime minister, finance minister and other senior cabinet positions for the last two decades. Protestors blame this family clique for outrageous corruption and robbery of public funds, economic mismanagement and driving the state into bankruptcy.
In one sense Sri Lanka’s foreign debt crisis, rooted in loans from Japan, India, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, shares a number of elements in common with other so-called developing economies, which have also seen waves of protest internationally in the last few years. But the blatant plunder and direct responsibility of the Rajapaksa clan and their cronies for this situation - almost a form of state capture - gives the protests and the opposition a much sharper political focus and a much clearer target to attack.
Alongside this outright corruption and mismanagement come some virulently chauvinistic and reactionary politics. The Rajapaksas have pursued an ultra-nationalist agenda of Sinhala supremacism, stirring up ethnic and religious hatred against minorities. They have close links to the army leadership and were involved in the final brutal suppression of the Tamil Tigers revolt in 2009, which saw thousands killed by the Sri Lankan army. Moreover, Rajapaksa has glorified the murder of Tamil civilians as part of the state’s counter-insurgency strategy and has himself, in the past, been accused of war crimes.
His hurried departure has opened up a political vacuum, which the Sri Lankan political class will be eager to fill as quickly as possible, given the scale of the protests that have been growing in size and militancy since a hartal (general strike) in April and May. In the words of one opposition politician, “It’s total anarchy in the country.”
In order to placate the protest movement, Wickremesinghe has promised fresh elections within a month, but it remains to be seen if he can deliver this and whether it will be enough to satisfy the demonstrators. There have also been reports that sections of the police and the army have shown sympathy with the protests, but, as yet, such disaffection appears not to be widespread: the ‘armed bodies of men’, the backbone of the state, remain intact. Indeed, it seems that the acting president is planning to deploy the army in a harsh crackdown.
However, other sections of the Sri Lankan political elite, whether in the Rajapaksa clique or in opposition parties, who went along with the economic strategy that has produced this chaos, are focusing for the moment on rearranging the deckchairs and handing out new ministerial portfolios in some form of ‘government of national unity’. Meanwhile the United States and other significant regional powers like China and India, and various creditors, are working behind the scenes to stabilise the situation and buy some time for the Sri Lankan political class to defuse what is clearly a revolutionary situation.
A revolutionary situation poses the question of revolutionary leadership, and, strangely, this takes us to Sri Lankan Trotskyism. Sri Lanka - Ceylon - is one of the few countries in the world in which Trotskyism developed as a mass party.
Although it is a convoluted history of splits and fusions, the main themes are clear. In the 1940s the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), formed the official parliamentary opposition and had a sufficient mass base to organise a highly effective hartal in 1953. The prime minster fell, much of the economy came to a halt and cabinet ministers sought refuge aboard HMS Newfoundland, a Royal Navy warship. The LSSP contemplated the seizure of state power.
These gains were, however, squandered in the 1960s when the LSSP adopted what was, in effect, a popular front position and made concessions to Sinhala chauvinism by supporting the left-posing, bourgeois nationalist Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike. True, the oil industry was nationalised, along with insurance, and close ties were established with both the Soviet Union and China. Interestingly, since 1978 the official title of the country has been the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party - established by her husband SWRD Bandaranaike in 1951 - was a typical cross-class petty bourgeois party along the lines of Ireland’s Sinn Fein, Sun Yat-sen’s Guomindang and Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, which quickly spawned its own thoroughly bourgeois state-business elite.
LSSP members first joined the cabinet in 1964 and went on to serve in subsequent Bandaranaike governments, including one that militarily crushed the 1971 insurrection organised by the leftist guerrilla group, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.
The LSSP was rewarded for its sterling service by their members being dismissed from the cabinet in 1972. They had served their purpose. The party’s subsequent degeneration from the 1970s onwards into a political mélange of Eurocommunism and Sinhala populism, with an ‘internationalist’ gloss, was a logical development from its participation in what, after all, was a bourgeois government. In adapting to the politics of Sinhala chauvinism, especially when directed against the large Tamil minority, the LSSP not only failed to stand up to the reactionary position of the Sri Lankan political elite, but actually legitimised and strengthened communal divisions. Today it is a nothing.
This sorry tale shows how it is not just ‘official communism’ that is susceptible to the blandishments of office and the political dead end represented by the strategy of the popular front. The less than glorious history of Trotskyism in Sri Lanka has its share of valuable lessons for us as well.
This history also partly explains the interest that most of the Trotskyist currents have shown in recent events in Sri Lanka. Many have their own local affiliates that have emerged from the tangled history of the LSSP and its sub-divisions, along with more recent contacts. These not only keep them informed of events, but are invariably meant to be the basis of the new revolutionary party that groups like the Committee for a Workers’ International, the International Marxist Tendency and the International Socialist Alternative (to name but three fragments) hope will lead the forthcoming Sri Lankan revolution.
It is instructive to look at how the left analyses the current events in Sri Lanka, as it reveals some of their underlying assumptions about the nature of revolution and the role of the party. There is general agreement that a revolutionary situation now exists in Sri Lanka and that mass protests can sweep away the current government. That, in fact, is more than likely.
Within the existing parliament, opposition parties account for the majority of seats. The government has 103 seats, the opposition 122. However, conditions cry out for much more than another coalition government and early elections. Winning over the soldiers and weakening the state’s ability to repress opposition is essential. There is a real danger of martial law and military rule. So the demand must be to disband the existing armed forces and establish a popular militia that embodies the right of the people to bear arms. Towards that end the Jana Aragalaya movement should certainly seek to arm itself for self-defence. There should also be the demand to abolish the position of president. It is not only Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe who must go.
It would be foolish to imagine, though, that Sri Lanka is about to become a real Democratic Socialist Republic any time soon. For that to happen the left needs to organise the working class into a party. At present the left is pathetically weak, fragmented and politically more than prone to enter coalition governments with bourgeois parties. Eg, the ‘official’ Communist Party of Sri Lanka (which split from the LSSP in 1943) has been in and out of government throughout its history.
Revolutions can happen, of course, without a revolutionary party. But without a revolutionary party they will always stop short, go down the blind ally of electing this or that ‘moderate socialist’ president or prime minister, or simply go down to a brutal and bloody counterrevolution. The belief in the spontaneous development of revolutionary socialist consciousness, the consequent rapid growth of a revolutionary cadre and the creation of a revolutionary party during the revolutionary process itself puts the cart before the horse, and certainly flies in the face of actual historical experience.
Despite the myths to the contrary, the Bolsheviks did not grow from next to nothing in February 1917. No, founded in 1903 as the majority faction of the RSDLP, they had deep social roots by the end of 1905 and won a clear majority of working class votes in duma and trade union elections in the years after.
For a real Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, we need a real revolutionary party.