Problems of a progressive project

| by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

(October 26, Paris, Sri Lanka Guardian) If the progressive movement stands for anything anywhere, it must stand for justice and fair-play, nationally and internationally, as well as for reforms which would ensure and enshrine such fair-play.
The sustainability and success of a progressive project depends on whether it can effect a difficult synthesis, that of radical realism, offering a politically mature citizenry a convincing vision of a different, more advanced and better Sri Lanka and the world. It should stand for and embody a different, more civilized social behaviour. It should represent and incarnate an exemplary citizenship. It should not be imprisoned in history; it must make history, exiting the cycle of conflict and breaking through to the 21st Century.
If the Left in any part of the world stands for anything it must stand for ethics and ethical values. For a progressive project or a project of Left orientation to be successful, it must occupy the moral high ground and be seen to do so.
The failed armed revolutionaries of the Latin American Left and progressive movement were able to be popularly elected into office within 30 years while the JVP remains on the margins, because – among other things — the character of the violence that the Latin American Left engaged in was romantically Quixotic or Robin Hood like, i.e. ethically justifiable, as that of the JVP in its second insurrection of ’86-’89 indubitably was not. Those Latin American Leftists who engaged in violence similar to that of the JVP’s second uprising, such as Peru’s Sendero Luminoso and Colombia’s FARC, have been unable to make a democratic comeback. The JVP, having made such a re-entry, has been stuck somewhere halfway and is in a decline, however temporary or lengthy that may be. Is the JVP or its breakaway UDF willing to make an honest self-criticism of its past, and if not, will it ever overcome the haunting social doubts about its core character?
The competition between the mainstream and dissident JVP, complicated by a four cornered struggle between the JVP, UDF, NFF (ex-JVP) and JHU could trigger, for the militant Southern youth, an unhealthy escalatory dynamic. While the JVP and UDF are the real competitors for the more serious minded and politically literate youth, it must be recalled that the leaders of all four organizations were in a single party and one side of the barricades: they were all in Rohana Wijeweera’s JVP and were on the violently anti-devolution side of the barricades in 1986-9.
Neither the JVP nor the dissident UDF seems to know how to handle the dimension of anti-imperialism and relations with a government that adopts an independent foreign policy and is manifestly under external pressure, even threat, from the Empire. Then again, that’s not a failing limited to them; that’s an abiding flaw of the Lankan Left as a whole, which never adhered to the dictum of ‘unity and struggle’ in relation to a government that is itself threatened by imperialist hegemonism and interventionism.
It is incumbent upon any progressive project to chart a perspective for a dependent, peripheral capitalist formation such as that of Sri Lanka, in danger of political domination from outside while facing an unresolved nationalities question within. One would reasonably expect the progressive/Left perspective in such a situation to consist of (a) the opposition to secession and the defence of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity; (b) the opposition to imperialist and neo-colonialist hegemonism, interventionism and the defence of national sovereignty; (c) a solution to the nationalities question based on a degree of political space that accommodates a deep-rooted collective identity (an electoral map of the areas won by the TNA and the TULF at successive post-war, post-LTTE elections reaffirms an irrepressible existential reality); and (d) the opposition to neoliberal economic policies and cutbacks of social entitlements while proposing an attractive and realistic economic policy for growth with equity, exemplified by Lula’s Brazil.
A progressive and Left politics must operate on two fronts: state and society. Today, progressive and Left politics cannot be about the overthrow of the state, but its remodelling. The state must not be sought to be overthrown not only because of the balance of forces and the danger of anarchy, but because the disintegration of the state will only strengthen the forces of separatism and external intervention/domination. In an era of neoliberal globalisation and neo-colonialism renamed ‘liberal humanitarian interventionism’ (or R2P), the state, especially in the global south, must be strong enough to intervene in the market on behalf of the citizens and also defend the nation, i.e. national sovereignty from external hegemonism and national unity and territorial integrity from secessionism.
However, progressive politics often gets it wrong three times over. Firstly, it confuses a strong state with hyper-centralization and defends or opposes one while confusing it for the other. Secondly and more importantly, it confuses the state with the status quo. While in some cases the defence of the former requires the defence of the latter, it is not always so, and sometimes the state must be defended against the status quo and at other times, a progressive status quo must be defended against the reactionary elements of the state. Thirdly, it confuses the state with the government or the administration. For a progressive formation, it should be perfectly possible to defend the state and its core interests while criticising this or that act or aspect, policy or faction of the government/administration, or indeed while taking its distance from ‘the government,’ ‘the administration’ and the governing ethos.
The victories of the progressive project in contemporary Latin America have been founded on broad Left and progressive unity, no more so than in Uruguay where the Tupamaros have been at the core of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) which has lasted for four decades. Can the JVP and/or the UDF overcome the Wijeweeraist DNA of vicious sectarianism? The future of the Lankan Left may depend on it. They could do no better than to diligently read, study, absorb and apply Antonio Gramsci. That’s pretty much what the Latin American Left did.
While the ethical factor of a barbarically violent past unaccounted for honestly, may always remain a ceiling for the JVP’s or UDF’s ascendancy, there is a largely ethical role that the Left and radicals can play in any society. Progressives must be the voice of justice and fair-play in every sphere and for everyone. An authentic progressive or Left politics should unite the exploited, oppressed, marginalized and alienated, overcoming all barriers of language, region and ethnicity. It should campaign for equal rights of all citizens and the actual, active exercise of those rights. It should stand, not so much against globalization as such, but against neo-liberal globalization, and for another globalization, an alternative globalization. It should not only be a party of resistance, but also of socioeconomic, political and cultural reform and renovation.
The sustainability and success of a progressive project depends on whether it can effect a difficult synthesis, that of radical realism, offering a politically mature citizenry a convincing vision of a different, more advanced and better Sri Lanka and the world. It should stand for and embody a different, more civilized social behaviour. It should represent and incarnate an exemplary citizenship. It should not be imprisoned in history; it must make history, exiting the cycle of conflict and breaking through to the 21st Century.
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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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