Hector Abhayavardhana and the politics of the Left

Over the last few decades, the Social Scientists’ Association has published a number of significant books. Their prices don’t reflect their value, and their value far exceeds their prices. Through them the SSA has made an indelible contribution to the intellectual climate of this country, even if that climate seems to be thinning out today.

Founded in 1977, the Association counted among its ranks the likes of Kumari Jayawardena, Newton Gunasinghe, and Jayadeva Uyangoda, drawn from such fields as history, sociology, and political science. Though predominantly concerned with issues of identity and ethnicity, over the years it contributed much to discussions of class and caste.

Among its seminal publications were Kumari Jayawardena’s studies of the labour movement and elite formation in Sri Lanka, Newton Gunasinghe’s forays into social relations in Kandy, and Senake Bandaranayake’s excursions into archaeology and art history. Not all of these are out of print, but many of them are. Among those no longer available is a collection of essays by Hector Abhayavardhana. I discovered my copy — its spine slightly torn off — with much difficulty. At Rs. 800, the price seems to have been worth the trouble.

The blurb informs us that Abhayavardhana’s life “was an eventful one.” So it was. The grandson of an Anglican pastor, Abhayavardhana obtained a middle-class education at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. By the 1930s when he graduated from the University of Ceylon, he had converted to Marxism, spurning his inheritance and espousing radical politics. The timing was right. The election of the second State Council in 1936 saw a dramatic shift in Left politics. With the emergence of a number of Left activists, including N. M. Perera, a strong Opposition crept up. The previous year these stalwarts had formed the LSSP. Abhayavardhana became an active supporter.

When asked why he joined the Communist Party in the US, Dalton Trumbo simply replied, “in such a world and such a time, it was not madness to hope for the possibility of making a better sort of world.” Abhayavardhana became a theoretician of the LSSP in that world, at that time, and with that hope. A colonial plantation enclave for more than 150 years, Sri Lanka had never undergone a bourgeois democratic revolution. For me, the LSSP’s biggest, most important contribution to Sri Lankan politics was its recognition of this historical fact. As its main theoretician, Abhayavardhana’s contribution was thus seminal.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part concentrates on Abhayavardhana’s writings on Indian society and politics. Abhayavardhana formed part of a cohort of LSSPers who, in response to the wartime ban imposed on the party by the colonial government, fled to India and founded the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India. In the introduction he notes that “[t]he need for a revolutionary party sprang from the absence of a revolutionary leadership in India.” This is a salient point, but it was truer of Sri Lanka than of India. Abhayavardhana himself admits this: when critiquing Nehru, for example, he contends that the anti-colonial resistance organised by the Congress Party did foment a mass uprising.

“It will thus appear that Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s surrogate for the national democratic revolution which was necessary to unify her people, modernize her economy and democratize her state. In a superficial, partial and provisional way he carried out each of these tasks. … He was the symbol of national unity.”

The critique is implied in the praise. Nehru, Abhayavardhana admits, “had no revolution behind him which could mobilize the activity of the masses.” Yet despite this, he was far ahead of his counterparts in Ceylon, who not only were content with British rule but had to be compelled by the government to grant the masses their right to vote. Though the BLPI and the socialist tendencies within the Congress Party broke ranks with Nehru, going as far as to call him a traitor to their cause, Abhayavardhana admits that he could still inspire and mobilise mass resistance against the colonial government.

This was more than what one could hope for with the Ceylonese bourgeoisie. Whereas the Indian bourgeoisie could support opposition to imperialism while benefitting from it, the Ceylonese elite identified their interests with colonial rule, as publicly admitted by James Pieris in 1908. This did not absolve the Indian bourgeoisie and the Congress leadership of their limitations, however: as Abhayavardhana notes in an essay on Gandhi,

“Neither the charkha manoeuvre of Gandhi, nor the communal manoeuvre of imperialism can halt for one single moment the process of the class struggle. And though the Mahatma may refuse to recognize the class struggle, the class struggle never fails to recognize the Mahatma… He continually warns against ‘violent and bloody revolution.’ He preaches (to the poor masses, to be sure!) ‘voluntary abdication of riches and the power that riches give.’ Meanwhile he advises the masses to live at peace with their masters.”

The problem with the Congress Party was that its methods weren’t radical enough to fit the needs of its objectives. The problem with the Ceylon National Congress was different. There neither the methods nor the objectives fit in with the needs of a society on the verge of a revolution. In Part II Abhayavardhana’s essays delve into these aspects of Sri Lankan society, as well as the bourgeoisie and their lack of revolutionary potential.

Here an important point needs to be made. In foraying into local society, Abhayavardhana and his colleagues covered much ground for later scholars, including anthropologists. This point has not, I feel, been appreciated enough, but even a cursory reading of his essays will show that the LSSP’s leading theoretician was providing insights on local, specifically rural, society, far ahead of the scholarship of his time. On the antagonism between Sinhalese and Tamil communities, for instance, he makes a valid and original observation.

“At best, therefore, the petit-bourgeois intelligentsia is endowed with a national consciousness. It does not repudiate the necessity of national unification, but it elevates its own sectional interests above the general interest and conceives of nationhood in terms of the hegemony of the majority over the minority… This explains the insistence of the Sinhala petit-bourgeois on its hegemonic rights over the minorities and the opposition of the Tamil intelligentsia to national unification itself, since in its own mind an integrated nation must inevitably establish the hegemony of the majority.”

Abhayavardhana’s critique of petit-bourgeois consciousness extends to the JVP. Responding to Fred Halliday’s New Left Review essay on the 1971 uprising, he writes,

“This was not a peasant uprising or revolution. It was a revolt of middle-class youth, all of them with school or university education and most of them the sons and daughters of rich or middle peasant homes. They were lured into a conspiratorial plan to overturn the government in the space of 24 hours and they were attracted to the plan because they were desperate from looking for jobs that they could not find — and they were either jobless or weary with jobs that they considered were beneath their educational status.”

Here the author strikes at the heart of the matter. Revolution in Sri Lanka, at least since 1977 when measures began to be taken to cripple the working class, has been defined from a middle-class, petit-bourgeois perspective. This is probably no less true of the 1971 uprising than it is of the revolution we are supposedly living through now.

Throughout this section Abhayavardhana distinguishes between these tendencies and the need for an organised revolution, the sort which the United Front regime attempted to see through in the 1970s. Yet 20 or so years later attitudes began to change dramatically, even within the Left. Abhayavardhana himself shifted, as with most of his colleagues: speaking of the People’s Alliance response to the IMF, for instance, he notes that

“The IMF is the sole international bank that you have for governments… We are a looking at the IMF as a bank, not as a government. It is an international bank. You don’t attribute to any banker that you go to meet for a loan that he has governmental powers. The IMF has its rules of lending. So long as you conform to those rules of lending you can exist.”

Reading these lines, it must be remembered that Abhayavardhana lived through three major periods in Left politics in Sri Lanka. In the first phase the LSSP embraced a vanguard strategy, steering clear of coalition politics and charting its own path. In the second phase it realised the limitations of this strategy, owing largely to its lack of support in villages, and abandoned it in favour of one of cohabitation: without abandoning its vanguard structure completely, the LSSP entered into agreements with the SLFP in the hopes of radicalising the latter and thereby fomenting a democratic revolution in the country.

In the third phase, which followed from a long period of UNP rule that effectively crushed the working class, the LSSP entered into several arrangements with a newly constituted SLFP. Under the Third Way Centrist People’s Alliance government and later the populist Rajapaksa administration, it sought to act as a pressure group within a larger coalition, to varying levels of success. Abhayavardhana’s essays reflect these shifts well. As such they are a gauge, and a good one, of the changing face of Left politics in Sri Lanka.

This book is a goldmine. I know that’s a crude way of putting it, but it’s true. It charts the rise of the Old Left, the convulsions it encountered, and the changes it had to graft on its original strategies. As the LSSP’s leading theoretician, Abhayavardhana lived through some of the most tumultuous times in Sri Lanka’s modern history. Unfortunately for us, this book, which provides a glimpse into those times, is no longer available. Whatever copies there are can no longer be easily found. A pity, because a work of this sort should be as widely available as possible. In that sense, I suppose, its loss is ours too.

The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.