Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Sexism and the Left: Crisis in the British Socialist Workers Party

Colombo – 28 January 2013

The British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is undergoing the latest and possibly most serious internal crisis since its foundation in the late 1970s, as loyal members warn of its “inevitable demise” or “terminal decline” unless there are urgent reforms.
One of the largest far-left organisations in Europe, and the leader of an international trotskyist current – the International Socialist Tendency – that has or once had important members in countries such as Canada, Greece, the USA and Zimbabwe – the implosion of the SWP is not, on the surface, to do with ideological disputes or differences of political perspective.
Instead, it revolves around a more awkward question for radical organisations: issues of patriarchy and women’s oppression -- including its reproduction within the working class movement -- as well as the “interior reality of socialist organisation” (Sheila Rowbotham).
The present unhappiness among members and supporters of the SWP began with the manner in which its leadership handled allegations of rape made by one of its women cadre against a central member of its leadership. These acts and omissions have, in the view of many, caused “significant and irreversible damage” to the reputation of the SWP.
As always, one issue soon leads to another: the stubbornness of the SWP leadership in recognising its fault; the undemocratic internal regime of the SWP; and the dawning realisation that for the leadership and older members of the party, “feminism” is a term of abuse.

Internal Processes

It all began when an internal inquiry into the rape allegation exonerated the male leader concerned. The only sanction he faced was to be dropped from the slate for the incoming central committee after the January 2013 party conference; but he continues to be a member ‘in good standing’ and indeed, full-timer of the SWP.
The matter is now “closed”, according to the leadership; but many members, especially younger women and men in its university student societies disagree.
When the transcript of the inquiry was leaked, it revealed that the process had been biased and unfair to the woman involved, inflaming disgruntled cadre. Their outrage, also shared by many other Leftists, feminists, and trade unionists, is that a socialist organisation that supports women’s liberation should be so insensitive to the crime of rape, and appear to protect one of its leadership against whom there are earlier allegations of sexual misconduct.
As critics observe, revolutionary organisations need to continuously combat within its own structures and among its own members, ideologies and practices that are oppressive, such as violence against women. For this reason, two decades ago, the Mexican Fourth Internationalists adopted a remarkable text on the need to defend women comrades from physical violence; sexual violence; and verbal violence, by other members.

Internal Regime

The SWP does not tolerate organised currents of its members on internal questions, outside of the right to form a faction for its three-month pre-conference period. Any such faction must be dissolved at the end of the conference. The leadership is composed only of the majority current and is a semi-permanent homogenous bloc; renewing itself only with those acceptable to it. Political minorities are not included on the leadership.
The SWP appears to offer its members less, rather than more, democracy when compared to many social and political institutions in contemporary western capitalist societies, (or even the Bolshevik Party during conditions of Tsarist repression in Russia)!
The SWP has favourably contrasted its version of ‘democratic centralism’ with that of organisations of the Fourth International, where there are full rights to have short or long-term tendencies and factions, and where representatives of minority tendencies and factions are included (in proportion to the support received at delegate conferences) in all leadership bodies.
There is no doubt that long-lasting factions within organisations reflect serious divergences, and is no cause for celebration! However, any ban on factions is a bureaucratic means of suppressing genuine political differences. These differences cannot be resolved by preventing their open discussion; rather, only the freedom to publicly discuss, and even apply different tactics, allows for the possibility of their narrowing within a common organisational framework.
Where internal dissent is not permitted by rules, it does not stop. Instead, it continues outside of the formal structures through informal individual interactions – after formal meetings, or by telephone and email, and through social media. In fact, the SWP expelled four of its party workers just before its recent conference, for the ‘offence’ of airing organisational and political issues on their Facebook pages! Where there is no space for open and respectful discussion of differences, dissenting individuals drift away; while those who remain become paralysed politically and cynical about their own organisation.
What’s worse, according to its external critics, is that the SWP transplants the same bureaucratic centralist regime within non-party organisations, structures and campaigns that it leads or participates. The lack of democracy, pluralism, and respect for the opinions of numerical and political minorities repels Leftists not organised by the SWP and is an obstacle to building unitary initiatives, whether in trade union or community struggles or in creating a political force (at once extra-parliamentary and electoral) to represent those unrepresented by the pro-capitalist parties.

Feminism and Socialism

Another aspect of the SWP’s troubles common to the Sri Lankan Left is the reduction of women’s oppression to capitalism and class society. Although women were founders and leaders of the first Left party in Sri Lanka; and were influenced by the first wave of feminism in the early 20th century; the Left in Sri Lanka has generally been antagonistic towards feminism, denouncing it as an ideology of middle-class women.
Women on the Left shaped by the second wave of feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s were not able or willing to stay within their anti-feminist organisations. Some became leaders of non-governmental organisations in the 1980s, but in the absence of an autonomous women’s liberation movement in Sri Lanka, and the retreat of the Left everywhere, were unable or disinterested to sustain and develop socialist feminist ideas and practices.
This failure meant that Left parties and trade unions were never challenged to admit and discard their backwardness on women’s oppression; whereas the Tamil national liberation struggle in the 1970s forced some Left and labour organisations to recognise that national oppression could not be dismissed as secondary to the struggle for socialism.
Back in Britain, militants of the Socialist Workers Party are leaving in disgust believing it to be irredeemably “tainted by a toxic combination of sexism, unaccountability, [and] anti-democratic manoeuvring”, (to borrow from China Miéville).
The Serbian affiliate of the International Socialist Tendency (IST) has withdrawn in protest; and leading Left intellectuals in other countries have signed an open letter breaking all links with the British SWP.
More resignations and possibly expulsions will follow, as the leadership dismisses appeals for a special party conference to review the case that sparked this chain of events; especially as its critics also demand a change in leadership and greater internal democracy.
The crisis in the SWP holds a mirror to the Left everywhere to draw appropriate lessons about the internalisation of patriarchy and authoritarian and male-dominated organisational cultures; or to be cast aside by those who realise that to change the world also includes to change ourselves. The personal is political.

A Sinhala-language version was (finally!) published on p. 6 of the May 2013 edition of Haraya

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Left Unity in Pakistan: Foundation of Awami Workers Party

Colombo -- 5 January 2013
In November 2012, three Left parties – the Awami Party, the Workers Party, and the Labour Party that is affiliated to the Fourth International – buried past differences to join together as the Awami Workers Party.

These differences are not all minor or sectarian, as the parties involved originate in counter posed 20th century Marxist traditions namely: pro-Moscow Communism; Maoism; and Trotskyism. These currents have had historically profound conflicts on the relationship between party and class; the strategy for socialist revolution; and concepts of democracy and political pluralism, among many other questions.
The recent unification highlights three global trends: (1) the recomposition of the national Left is either ongoing or presents itself as a task for revolutionaries; (2) there is no ‘one size fits all’ model for regroupment; and (3) the difficulties of unity are worsened by the weakness of the workers movement and the aggression of neoliberal capitalism and other reactionary ideologies and forces, like the military and the mullahs in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, it was the revived left-wing National Students Federation that pushed the leaderships of the three parties to combine: recognising that the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts; and it is the youth who have been most enthusiastic supporters of this political project.
Another motivation, says general secretary Farooq Tariq, “was to strengthen the labour and peasant movement that [the Left parties] were able to build in parts of the country over the years. The movements were in some confusion about the three parties pursuing similar ideology and tactics with three different names”.


Merging from Below

An interesting decision was taken by the leaders of the three Pakistani parties not to merge from the ‘top’, that is through an organisational merger of the parties; but rather to unify from ‘below’, through dissolving their individual parties; and recommending their former members to join the new party as individuals.
The reason for so doing is for the former members to voluntarily accept the common programme and identity of the new party, and therefore transcend former allegiances and loyalties, while thinking anew about old questions and contemporary issues.
The Awami Workers Party will struggle for a democratic, secular, and socialist Pakistan. Some key ideas in its programme are for a pro-people foreign policy; recognition of the multinational character of Pakistan and for a genuine federal system based on the right of self-determination for all nations; break from the dictates of multinational capital and imperialism; and replacing the existing and oppressive state institutions with those that provide for basic needs and are democratic.
An immediate objective for the new party is to increase its representation and participation of women. This challenge, which exists everywhere, is intensified in Pakistan following the rise of Islamist ideologies that discriminate against women’s participation in politics and public life; and the insecurity caused by terror outfits and religious sectarian violence in its cities.
Initially, the interim leadership of the new party only included one woman. When this was criticised by many inside and outside the party, instead of making excuses or being inflexible, the existing leadership sensibly and quickly co-opted six more women. Currently, women comprise 40 percent of the interim Executive Committee.


Campaign for Mass Party

Not content to regroup the organised Left, the Awami Workers Party, has also embarked on a national campaign to become a mass party of hundreds of thousands of members; and to establish itself in provinces and regions where the Left has been marginal or even absent.
This ambition if realised, as we hope it will, brings its own problems that the Left in Sri Lanka would be fortunate to face.
How to rapidly transform the discontented into class-conscious militants opposed to all forms of exploitation and oppression, regardless of the identity of the abuser and the abused? How to turn recruits into socialist activists in workplaces, in neighbourhoods, and in mass organisations, instead of only passive or paper members?
The Awami Workers Party has received electoral registration and will contest in general elections due this year. It is also confident of gaining seats in provincial parliaments and local bodies. Between 30 April and 1 May, the first convention of the new party will elect its leadership, on the basis of its new structures and members.
The regroupment of the Left is not a short-cut to success for revolutionaries in bad times, or a quick-fix solution to the crisis of credibility of socialism. This is also clear from the successes and failures of Left unity initiatives across the world over the past two decades. However, as hard and risky as the recomposition of the Left has been and will be, it is a strategic task for Marxists in the 21st century.

(Published in Sinhala-language Haraya newspaper of January 2013)

Forgotten Political Prisoners in Post-War Sri Lanka

Colombo -- 4 June 2012

Welikada prison in Colombo was the site of a rare picket campaign on 29 May, organized by the Movement for the Release of Political Prisoners (MRPP) which is an initiative of the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP).
Leaders of the radical left, including from the Frontline Socialist Party, and from the opposition Tamil National Alliance and Democratic Peoples’ Front addressed the protest, that received wide media coverage, demanding a general amnesty for all political prisoners.
Many of the speakers drew attention to the presidential pardon received by former army commander and presidential candidate, Sarath Fonseka on 21 May. His conviction on charges of corruption and improper conduct while in military service, and imprisonment for almost 2 ½ years, was widely perceived to be politically motivated and had been a source of disaffection even within the government and its Sinhala nationalist base.
Vickramabahu Karunarathne of the NSSP asked, if leaders of the LTTE such as its former Eastern region military commanders V. Muralitharan (alias Karuna Amman) and S. Chandrakanthan (alias Pillayan) and political operatives ‘Daya Master’ and ‘George Master’ had been spared imprisonment and are at liberty, then why not extend the same treatment for those who were in its lower ranks or simply sympathisers, leave alone the innocents who had been wrongfully arrested?
The Welikada prison picket was organized in solidarity with the hunger strike conducted by 234 Tamils imprisoned in Colombo, Kalutara and Vavuniya beginning 17 May.  It followed a protest in the northern town of Vavuniya (250 kilometres from Colombo) on 24 May in which 500 family members, mainly women, fasted for a day in solidarity with the prisoners, along with NSSP members and parliamentarians of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).“Detainees should be either charged or released”, said MRPP activist, P Bhoominathan, while appealing for a general amnesty as had been extended to Sinhala political prisoners following the youth insurrections of 1971 and 1987-89.
The mobilisation for both solidarity actions in the face of state repression, including a court order preventing a proposed demonstration and public protest on the same issue that was planned by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (Peoples Liberation Front) in Vavuniya earlier in May, was in itself a success.
The ‘fast to death’ campaign of the Tamil prisoners began to highlight their forgotten situation and oppressive conditions of detention. Some have been in custody for 10 or even 15 years without having been convicted of any offence. Others have been indicted based on forced confessions or their signature on statements written in Sinhala (which they cannot read) but which are admissible under the provisions of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
The plight of long-term detainees was also raised by the recent European Parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka headed by Jean Lambert MEP, who called for them to be either charged or released.
803 persons are believed to be detained under the PTA. While the vast majority of the detainees are Tamil males originating from the Northern and Eastern regions; there are also several women, Hindu and Christian clergy, disabled persons, at least 30 Up-Country Tamils (mainly from Kandy), and Sinhala men (aka ‘Sinhala Tigers’) accused of supporting the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Since 2011, that is almost 2 years after the end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year long war, 241 fresh arrests have been made under the PTA. Some of these are likely to be from among the 11,600 LTTE ex-combatants and surrendees, who were held in so-called ‘rehabilitation’ centres since May 2009.
Of this number the military claim that only 698 now remain in their custody; as over 10,000 have since been released, and an unknown number transferred into various holding centres pending their prosecution. There is no public registry of the names and locations of Tamils in detention, which has been a demand of family members searching for their missing relatives.
The government took a hard-line position against the prisoners protest, denying that there were any political prisoners in its jails, and refusing to negotiate with the prisoners until they called off their hunger strike.
“We are not holding any political prisoners. Those who are currently in detention and in remand are those who were connected to LTTE’s acts of terrorism,” said Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. He also stated that at least 309 prisoners on remand will be indicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and that 359 have been charged to date.
As the health of the prisoners on fast deteriorated, Tamil National Alliance parliamentarians visited some of them to persuade them to end their protest while representations were made on their behalf.
Meanwhile the government announced that three new high courts would begin functioning from the beginning of June in Anuradhapura, Mannar and Vavuniya which would expedite the hearing of the cases against the prisoners.
On 25 May, the prisoners suspended their protest while vowing to resume it again in a month’s time if there is no progress in the review of their cases.
According to S. Mahendran of the Movement for the Release of Political Prisoners, the next step following the Welikada prison picket is a mass signature campaign beginning 5 June demanding a general amnesty for, and early release of, all political prisoners.
This will be a challenge in the Sinhala community where there is acceptance of the government’s view that those in remand are terrorists and undeserving of clemency, and there is active hostility towards anyone with a contrary view.
Another public protest is planned in June, in the north-central city of Anuradhapura, and which will be joined by families of the disappeared who are also clamouring for justice.

(Published in LankaNewsWeb on 7 June 2012)

Reviving the Left in Sri Lanka? Launch of Frontline Socialist Party

By Niel Wijethilaka and K. Govindan
Kalutara and Kandy 14.04.2012

More than 5,000 people packed Colombo’s Sugathadasa stadium for the inaugural conference of the Peratugami Samajawadi Pakshaya (Frontline Socialist Party – FSP) on 9 April 2012. Most were members and sympathisers of this new Left party – a breakaway from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (Peoples’ Liberation Front – JVP); but many representatives of other radical Left parties, Left intellectuals, and progressive social activists were also in attendance. The emergence and consolidation of the FSP is an important and hopeful development for the revival of peoples’ movements in Sri Lanka in the post-war era, following decades of retreat of the labour and left movements.
Underlining the internationalism of the new party, and its understanding of the relationship between national and global struggles against capitalism, the Convention was dominated by speeches and messages from international guests and representatives of FSP branches in England, France and Italy. Greetings were also delivered by Left groups within Sri Lanka, mainly of Trotskyist and Maoist lineage, including Vickramabahu Karunarathne on behalf of the Nava Sama Samaja Party.
A ‘Party for Us’ announced the new party in a poster and social media campaign in the weeks leading up the Convention, showcasing images of the poor and exploited – of different classes, occupations and ethnicities, who are unrepresented in the present political system.
Currently, the working class movement is passive and its traditional leadership are unwilling to challenge the government on the unbearable cost of living and the pillaging of workers savings to service government debt and stimulate the stock market. The number of strikes and workers on strike has sharply declined to only 8 recorded strikes in 2009, with only 5,320 workers involved in contrast to 52 strikes of over 200,000 workers in 2006.
The governmental Left is palpably weaker in policy influence than in previous coalitions and unable to even moderate the authoritarian capitalism of the Rajapakse government. The organised Left outside the government has declined numerically and in social weight and is struggling to regenerate itself. While there have been some significant social struggles of free trade zone workers, university teachers, and fisher-folk in the past year, these have been short-lived episodes with only partial defensive gains at best.

Abductions overshadow Convention
The excitement of an impressively organised and staged launch was overshadowed by the abduction of two leading members of the new party on the eve of its Convention; in a transparent attempt to sabotage the event and to sow disarray and confusion in its ranks.
Premakumar Gunarathnam and Dimuthu Attygala were abducted in two separate incidents within hours of each other, following a pre-Convention meeting of the leadership on 7 April. Their party was unequivocal in holding the state responsible for the abductions and in expressing the widespread sentiment that it was a prelude to their extra-judicial killing, as has been the despicable trend in Sri Lanka.
In an unprecedented development, Gunarathnam and Attygala were both released from captivity on 10 April. Their safe release is only due to the broad and diverse political coalition that protested against their abduction within Sri Lanka, the diplomatic pressure of the Australian government, and an international solidarity campaign that was swiftly organised including through the Fourth International.

Splits within JVP
Late last year the media began carrying reports of a major split within the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which has been Sri Lanka’s largest Left party (although many Sri Lankan leftists object to characterising it as socialist because of its Sinhala nationalist stance on the Tamil national question).
The JVP’s roots are in the Maoist Ceylon Communist Party in the late 1960s and its membership and supporters are drawn from the Sinhala rural and semi-urban petty-bourgeoisie. Its central leader, Rohana Wijeweera, was expelled from the CCP-Peking and formed his own secretive organisation which led two armed insurrections against the Sri Lankan state in 1971 and later in 1987, which were brutally crushed with the loss of tens of thousands of young lives. In the second insurrection, all but one member of its leadership was physically eliminated.
In the early 1990s, the JVP revived its organisation and entered electoral politics. As the bourgeois populist Sri Lanka Freedom Party adopted the neoliberal policies of the right-wing United National Party after forming a new government in 1994, the JVP became the beneficiary of social and political discontent and a pole of attraction to radical students and young workers. Its parliamentary caucus grew from 1 member in 1994, to 10 in 2000 and 16 in 2001, and peaked at 39 (in the 225 seat legislature) in 2004. It also made significant gains among organised workers especially in the state and private sector, often through poaching members from rival unions; while also dominating politics in universities through its militant student unions which were not averse to using violence and ragging to exert its authority over the administration and students alike.
However, the JVP faced two ways: it presented itself as an anti-imperialist and an anti-capitalist force struggling for socialist revolution in Sri Lanka, while simultaneously projecting itself as a patriotic nationalist organisation rooted in Sinhala Buddhist culture and committed to the preservation of the unity and territorial integrity of the country.
As former general-secretary of the JVP, Lionel Bopage – who also pushed in the late 70s and early 80s for his party to recognise the existence of Tamil national oppression and to support the Tamil struggle for equality and justice – commented: “Since the late 1990s the JVP not only supported the chauvinist verbal onslaught against the Tamil people but also became an active collaborator in the brutal repression carried out by the state against the Tamil people. Thus, it has to bear some responsibility for the socio-cultural and economic outcomes that the working people of the island are experiencing today. For dividing the people by clouding its consciousness, the JVP, in particular its nationalist bloc used chauvinist and fundamentalist slogans to the maximum effect. The JVP camouflaged its ultra nationalist stance with socialist phraseology”.
The JVP have been virulently opposed to any proposals for power-sharing with the Tamil nation. It was a bitter critic of the draft 2000 Constitution, the political proposals debated during the Cease-Fire Agreement (between 2002 and 2005), and withdrew from the All-Party Representative Committee process on constitutional reforms. It even continues to oppose the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that introduced limited devolution of powers to the regions, despite contesting elections for and being represented in those provincial councils.
The JVP were vocal supporters of the war and of the use of military force to suppress the LTTE. In their view, the division of the island through creation of an independent Tamil homeland (‘Tamil Eelam’) would benefit US imperialism and Indian ‘expansionism’ in the region. The logical political conclusion of this perspective was to form alliances with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led government that was prosecuting the war.
Thus, the JVP – like the ‘Old Left’ Lanka Sama Samaja Party and Communist Party of Sri Lanka decades before it – succumbed to the pressure of ‘coalition politics’ (popular frontism) by aligning itself with the SLFP, first by joining the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga government in 2004, and later by vigorously supporting the election of her successor Mahinda Rajapakse in 2005.
As the flawed ‘peace process’ and full-blown war broke out after August 2006, the JVP mobilised Sinhala society in warmongering. The government even arranged for the JVP parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa to regularly address soldiers at the battle-front, in a morale-boosting exercise.
This twin policy of collaborating with the neoliberal governments of Kumaratunga and Rajapakse as well as its non-differentiation from the Sinhala chauvinist campaign against Tamil rights sparked an internal debate within the JVP on its revolutionary socialist identity.

Chauvinist split in 2008
Hidden from public view, the different viewpoints were partially revealed when the camp around the Sinhala chauvinist Weerawansa broke with the party and joined the Rajapakse coalition in April 2008, along with 10 other JVP parliamentarians. The JVP lost its most charismatic public speaker along with a front organisation of Buddhist monks and laity that was in the vanguard of agitation against political resolution of the national question.
At the time, Weerawansa revealed that there was a group within the party that wanted it to rethink its political positions, including on the Tamil question, and warned darkly of ‘Trotskyist’ deviations.
This was clearly an exodus of the Sinhala nationalist bloc within the JVP. It allowed the JVP to reassert its political independence from the Rajapakse regime. In fact, soon after the end of the war in mid-2009, the JVP in an about-turn began demanding the end of emergency rule, the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, speedy rehabilitation and release of LTTE combatants and Tamil political prisoners, and for respect for democratic and human rights. It also repositioned itself as a bitter critic of the Rajapakse regime but without any self-criticism of its own past political record of support.
The debate continued within the JVP as a group of dissidents attempted to win the traditional leadership of the party over. It was only in August 2011, when it became clear to the dissidents that there was no democratic space for them within the JVP that they took the decisive step of forming a public faction known as the Jana Aragala Vyaparaya (Movement for Peoples Struggle – MPS).
The dissidents began at a disadvantage. They were mainly second generation leaders recruited in the student movement in the course of the 1990s for e.g. Pubudu Jagoda, Chameera Koswatta, Waruna Deepthi Rajapaksa, Duminda Nagamuwa and others. The older members such as Senadheera Gunatilleke were only known within the party and unknown to the general public as the JVP has generally projected its parliamentarians as its public spokespersons complemented by its paramount leader Somawansa Amarasinghe and its General Secretary Tilvin Silva as its ideologues. Indeed, one of the MPS’ criticisms of the JVP is that its leaders were created through their entry into elected bodies such as parliament, and not through peoples’ movements.
The mainstream media was swift to describe the dissidents as ‘extremists’ and hint that they represented a throwback to the JVP’s armed adventurism. The identity of one of their key leaders, Premakumar Gunarathnam, was leaked to the media; and his Tamil ethnicity was used to throw mud at the new formation, manifesting Sri Lanka’s racist political culture.
However, the MPS was able to win the loyalty of most of the bureaus of the JVP (for e.g. student, education, publications etc.), as well as the majority of its district structures aside from Anuradhapura, Hambantota and Kurunegala. Also, many of the JVP’s overseas members, excepting perhaps in Japan, have also joined the new formation.
The new party is evidently well-funded in comparison to other Left parties. It has several full-timers and an efficient and disciplined organisational structure. It is supporting the Janarala newspaper (edited by the team that previously published the pro-JVP Irida Lanka weekly). It has organised several public events in the last few months to consolidate its membership and explain its differences with the JVP. It is able to mount posters island-wide and within the space of a few hours, such as immediately following the recent abduction of its leaders. Like the JVP it is able to count on the selflessness and self-sacrifice of its cadres and sympathisers. Its overseas committees are also critical to its income and in developing relations with fraternal organisations abroad.
The JVP has the support of 3 of the 4 parliamentarians returned in 2010; only Ajith Kumara representing Galle district has joined the FSP. It also has retained the support of its trade unions and their membership. However, its peasant front leader (and former member of parliament) S. K. Subasinghe has joined with the dissidents. The JVP has also secured most of its assets including headquarters and many district offices.

Partial Break with JVP
Initially, the MPS aimed to gain leadership of the JVP and therefore it has presented itself as the authentic or genuine inheritors of the legacy of Rohana Wijeweera. So, last November on Wijeweera’s death anniversary that is marked as ‘Heroes Day’, there were two commemorations of JVP martyrs (Il Maha Viru Samaruwa) by the different factions.
Although it has engaged in self-criticism of its past (that was distributed in book form at the inaugural convention), the new party has focused its critique on the post-2004 record of the JVP, particularly its support for the capitalist Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Therefore, it is still unable to confront the adventurism of the JVP’s two abortive ‘revolutions’, as well as the break from Marxism represented by Wijeweera’s position that the Tamil plantation proletariat (of recent Indian origin) constituted a fifth column of Indian expansionism; and his opposition to the Tamil liberation struggle.
The split has already had a salutary effect on the JVP. In January 2010, it supported the presidential campaign of former army commander Sarath Fonseka, also backed by the United National Party and the Tamil National Alliance, and formed a motley electoral front with him and his supporters (ranging from disgruntled UNPers and SLFPers to military personnel) called the Democratic National Alliance (DNA). This alliance is now dead as the JVP has accepted that it was a mistake to ally itself with Fonseka and claims that it will not enter into coalition agreements with pro-capitalist parties in future. Also, the JVP has become more strident in its criticism of the militarisation of the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern provinces of the island and in highlighting abuses of democratic and human rights in those regions.
While the FSP is critical of the JVP’s position on the Tamil national question, its own perspective is still vague and ambiguous. It recognises the existence of multiple nationalities in Sri Lanka, but does not advocate the right to self-determination for oppressed nationalities. In fact its leaders have said that they oppose “separatism and federalism” and will seek to convince Tamils to “accept a solution which ensures equality and democracy to them”.
We can agree that the existing 13th Amendment is not a solution to the national question and that we need to transcend capitalism to attack the roots of national oppression. However, as a beginning, does the FSP accept the need for its full implementation including the controversial exercise of powers over land allocation and police powers by provincial governments? And, will it join the campaign for “13+”, that is, for power-sharing with Tamils and other minorities and self-government in the North and East? This is a thorny issue for the FSP partly because the JVP opposed the 13th Amendment and killed leftists who (critically) supported the Indo-Lanka Accord that introduced the constitutional reform during its second insurrection.
It is commendable that the MPS/FSP has not yielded to the prevailing Sinhala nationalist ethos and has publicly declared that it is engaged in dialogue with ex-LTTE combatants and willing to accept them into its ranks. The government has unleashed a ferocious propaganda campaign against it for daring to forge unity between the Sinhala and Tamil oppressed and to overcome the mutual distrust and suspicion that has polarised the exploited and marginalised of both peoples. However, the new party cannot take cover under the threadbare position of the JVP that Tamils and other minorities must await ‘socialism’ for the satisfaction of their democratic demands.
There also needs to be clarity on whether we mean the same thing by ‘socialism’ and the road to socialism. What is the relationship between democracy and socialism? How do we entrench and assimilate democratic practices within our own organisations and mass organisations? How should socialists work within the workers movement when it is divided on party political lines? What is the relationship between struggles against national oppression and struggles for socialism?
For instance, the FSP’s inaugural convention appears to be modelled on those of the JVP which are rallies of the faithful and not delegate-based conferences where open debate takes place and the leadership is transparently elected. Instead, the new leadership (an 18 member central committee) of the FSP was announced at the Convention, having apparently been pre-selected by an inner core membership. Subsequently, the central committee has elected Senadheera Gunatilleke as its general secretary and G. Kularatne as its organising secretary among its 9 member political council that also includes Premakumar Gunarathnam and Dimuthu Attygala.
It is to the credit of the Frontline Socialist Party that since its inception, it has been open to collaborate and dialogue with other political traditions. This sharp break from the political practice of the JVP cannot be over-stated. The JVP has always been a sectarian party that placed its self-interest over those of the broader movement. It avoids engagement with the radical Left and is unable to collaborate on joint campaigns even in the trade union and social movement. The JVP only considers itself to be the genuine party of the Left. This has isolated it and contributed to its political stagnation.
In contrast, the comrades of the FSP understand that the working class is not homogeneous and that it will have diverse political tendencies. Therefore the FSP recognises that there has to be a plurality of the Left in the revolutionary movement and that the movement as a whole can only advance through grasping and channelling the various experiences of its constituents.
The FSP has adopted the perspective that it does not claim to have all the answers and neither does it claim to have had a spotless past. In that spirit it has welcomed the participation of other groups in its Movement for Peoples Struggle which it intends to continue as a broad front while building its own party. This enlightened approach of the comrades of the FSP and the respectful manner in which it has been in dialogue with the radical Left including Trotskyist groups such as the NSSP, despite the hostility of the JVP towards this political tradition, is what is most encouraging in what are bleak and unfavourable times.
In addition to common campaigns such as around disappearances and abductions, the current political dialogue should also take place at the base of the radical Left and not be confined to its leadership in Colombo. The FSP could open the pages of its newspaper, not only to promote greater understanding within the Left, but also to overcome the crisis of credibility of socialist ideas and politics. The NSSP has proposed to the FSP that it should jointly organise its May Day celebration this year with other Left parties and trade unions. Unitary initiatives such as these can be decisive steps towards greater convergence on the Left and inspire hope among those in struggle today and tomorrow.

(Published in International Viewpoint No. 447 April 2012)