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Wimal Fernando : ’Socialism was in the air’

exclusive excerpts from a longer interview

12 August 2014

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sacw.net - 12 August 2014

“As we mark the 40th anniversary of the first Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection in April 2011, and its suppression, take us back to the origins of the radical, mainly Sinhalese, youth movement in the South during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

That was a special time, and not only in Sri Lanka, of course. Many years after the first JVP uprising, I met a Bangladeshi who told me that around the same time there was a remarkably similar youth movement [in East Bengal] that, like us in the Ginipupura (‘The Spark’) group [one of several revolutionary left groups that emerged from the pro-Peking Ceylon Communist Party], also took the name of Iskra or “Spark”. [Iskra was the Russian socialist newspaper originally managed by Vladimir Lenin.]

Three things contributed to the youth insurrection. Firstly, the perception that armed insurrection to topple a capitalist government was legitimate. Even more than legitimate, it was regarded as necessary and heroic, almost a duty. The revolutionary processes in Cuba and Vietnam were enormously influential in this regard. Secondly, the left movement within the country had for the preceding 30 years been propagating the idea of socialism and, more importantly, ideas of social justice. They fought for welfare, health, education, and so on.

1970 was the zenith of the left movement because the LSSP [Lanka Sama Samaja Party] and CP [pro-Moscow Communist Party] came into government and unlike now, not whimpering, but from a position of strength. They asked for and received the ministries of their choosing: Finance, Constitutional Affairs, Plantation Industries, Transport, Housing, etc. They wanted, through participation in the parliamentary process, to capture the commanding heights of the economy [to acquire, through state ownership, the most strategic and influential institutions, sectors and processes of the economy - through which it was assumed the country could be reoriented in a socialist direction]. They made a mess of it, but that’s another story.

Thirdly, dissatisfaction was already surfacing, particularly among the young, the educated and the unemployed. It was a dangerous mix. Unlike now, there was intense ideological discussion among university students, and there was a powerful left movement. For example, in my time, the LSSP would sweep the board at student council elections in universities. The trade unions were dominated by the left, which even had a large presence in local government. In comparison to those of the ‘Old Left’, the achievements of the JVP have been insubstantial.

The main question [at the time] was whether the left parties in government were revolutionary or revisionist. By 1968 there was already a division in the Communist camp between supporters of the Soviet Union and those of the People’s Republic of China. In Sri Lanka, no one saw the absurdity in Communists describing themselves as pro-Moscow or pro-Peking! The two CPs here would parrot the line from their respective centres of world revolution. The joke was that if someone in Moscow sneezed, then the local CP would contract influenza. Such was their blind devotion.

The leader of the pro-Peking Communist Party, ‘Shan’ [N. Sanmugathasan], took the view that the parliamentary left were revisionist and described parliament as a den of thieves. However, soon, ‘Shan’ himself came under attack. If you believe in armed revolution as you claim, the critics within his party asked, where are your arms…and why aren’t you collecting them?

So, there were breakaways and expulsions from the CCP [Ceylon Communist Party - Peking wing] of young, gifted and determined leaders, beginning with Kalyananda Thiranagama (KT), followed later by Gamini Yapa, and finally, Rohana Wijeweera [founder of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna]. The Ginipupura group founded by KT and others was highly influenced by the Chinese Cultural Revolution. There were at least three or four within the group who claimed to have received “training” in China, which immediately elevated their standing among the others!

There was a unique conjuncture in 1970, with a strong left presence in government, and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party majority in Cabinet in the shadows. The most impressive SLFPers, such as T. B. Ilangaratne, T.B. Subasinghe and Badi-ud-din Mahmud were themselves close to the left parties. There was also dynamism in the cultural arts with E.R. Sarathchandra’s plays, novels by writers such as Karunasena Jayalath, and others. All in all, the time was ripe for the young to challenge the government with arms. But when the revolutionary challenge came, it was amateur in the extreme.”

[ . . . ]

Wimal Fernando, the veteran left and democratic rights activist and former trade unionist, was interviewed by Ahilan Kadirgamar and Balasingham Skanthakumar in January 2011. These excerpts were transcribed and annotated by B. Skanthakumar. The interview is published in Pathways of the Left in Sri Lanka, edited by Marshal Fernando and B. Skanthakumar, Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue, Colombo 2014, pp. 217-240.

Book Announcement:

Reflections on the Left Movement in Sri Lanka

In Pathways of the Left in Sri Lanka, the beginnings, role and evolution of a radical social movement is surveyed against the background of almost eight decades of political, social and economic change in the island.

The contents of this unique volume, and its diverse contributors, are:

Landmarks in the History of the Left: 1935-1980 • Santasilan Kadirgamar • Dialectics of a Modernist Project • Jayadeva Uyangoda • Left and the Trade Union Movement • Vijaya Vidyasagara • Left and the Plantations • Vijaya Kumar • Left and Religion • Paul Caspersz • Left and Mass Media in the 20th century • Ajith Samaranayake • Left Women and Political Participation • Pulsara Liyanage • The ‘New Left’: Its Origins and Characterisation • Gamini Keerawella • “Socialism was in the air” • Wimal Fernando • Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna: An Auto-Critique • Lionel Bopage • Nationalism, Globalisation and the Left • Rohini Hensman • Economic Development: Left Perspectives • Sumanasiri Liyanage • The Left and the State: Some Theoretical Concerns • Ahilan Kadirgamar • Politics of Coalition: On Cross-Class Alliances • Sivaguru Ganesan • Splits and Schisms: The Malady of Sectarianism • Kumar David • Sources on the History of the Left • Eef Vermeij with B. Skanthakumar.

This 400 page anthology of papers, articles, interviews and bibliography is edited by Marshal Fernando and B. Skanthakumar and published by the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue (EISD).

It is available from all good bookstores including Suriya Bookshop at No. 12 Sulaiman Terrace, off Jawatte Road in Colombo 5, and may be ordered online from books.lk.

P.S.

These exclusive excerpts are published on sacw.net with the express permission from the editors of the above volume.