What is Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and where is it headed?
Tuesday, 6 June 2023 00:10 – – 90
It is clear that because of the very nature of Sri Lanka’s modern incorporation into the capitalist imperialist world system, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism cannot challenge the country’s intrinsic subordination. Instead, such nationalism will appropriate and deflect resistance, including attempts to develop an actual framework of self-sufficiency that links technical innovation to ideological struggle by engaging the pluralistic politics of working people
Tom Nairn’s classic book, ‘The Break-Up of Britain’, brims with thought-provoking points. In one counterintuitive passage, Nairn argued that because Marxist revolutions, especially the German Revolution, failed in Western Europe in the early part of the 20th century, British Marxists must recalibrate their understanding of the relationship between Marxism and the national question (Verso Edition, 1981, pp.84-85). For Nairn, the struggles emerging at the time he was writing, in the 1970s, represented a distinctive alternative. Specifically, he argued that peripheral nationalisms, such as that of the Scots and Irish, could challenge the unity of the British state. Accordingly, they could do more to advance social struggles in the face of the eclipse of traditional working-class organisations.
A similar dialectic in Sri Lanka could arguably be said to have paved the way for the benign attitude of the Southern Left towards Tamil nationalism in its early days in the 1970s and 1980s, especially with the progressive aura attributed to groups such as the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). As we now know from history, however, these movements became subordinated to the reactionary, destructive politics of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Yet the national question persists insofar as it indicates the unresolved issues at the heart of Sri Lanka’s polity. What is the relationship between Sinhala and non-Sinhala communities? What must we do to identify a progressive horizon under which to advance social and class struggles while recognising differences?
As Nairn outlines, and as we must now grapple in our own ways, the answer cannot simply be a return to a working-class movement defined in narrow, reductive terms. In the context of Sri Lanka, Kumari Jayawardena has shown that even the working-class movement and the Left more broadly became subordinate to, if not captured by, the hegemony of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism over the long 20th century. But to grasp Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, we cannot rely on understanding it through the mistakes made by the Left alone. We must also advance our own theorisation that can explain the persistence of nationalism, not only against the background of the Left’s defeat, but on a much longer time scale.
In this regard, a debate is starting to emerge on the tactical and strategic relationship between the Southern Left and nationalism. That includes a recent discussion between Uditha Devapriya and Dayan Jayatilleke, in view of the former’s engagement with Nairn’s work and implicitly shaped as well by an earlier debate that included Devapriya and me. My concern in this article is somewhat different, insofar as I bracket my longstanding concerns with the appropriation of any new potential Left movement by Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Instead, I seek to account for the substance and duration of this nationalism over a much longer period. Here I must begin by engaging one of the classic works on the development of nationalism in the Third World, ‘Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World’ by Partha Chatterjee.
Chatterjee argues that nationalism in India emerged as a specific type of response to colonialism. It invoked oppositions that relied on colonialism’s underlying “thematic.” According to Chatterjee, nationalism—in its classic formulation by figures such as Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay—inverted colonialism’s distinction between West and East. It interpreted the former as “bad” and the latter as “good.” However, it did not challenge the foundational assumption, that this contrast between civilisations was even relevant to an emancipatory political project.
Chatterjee argues that Gandhi tried to think outside the dualistic framework, by pushing against the boundaries of the nation-state, which had been reified through the global expansion of capital. But ultimately, Jawaharlal Nehru represented a third “moment” in nationalist discourse. Developmentalism reasserted the value of the nation. The result—foreshadowed by Chatterjee’s Introduction and dealt with in the much longer body of work produced by the Subaltern Studies school—was the suppression of the subaltern, whose struggles did not conform to the interests of middle-class nationalists. Chatterjee in fact uses Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution, to describe the incorporation of the peasantry and other subaltern social groups into the middle-class nationalist movement.
This argument is worth considering in Sri Lanka’s context, but with a caveat introduced by Nairn. As Nairn put it in ‘The Break-Up of Britain’, nationalisms as historical phenomena must be understood and interpreted in terms of that complex global process that Leon Trotsky called combined and uneven development (pp.80-81). Meaning, the progressive or regressive character of nationalism as a political force can only be understood in terms of the relative weight and predominance of its class elements in a conjuncture. This is as true in Sri Lanka as it is in India, or in Britain. It is even as true as the time of Marx and Engels when they wrote about emerging national struggles during the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe. But there remains the question as well of the social formation out of which modern nationalism evolves. Is it possible that some nationalisms are reactionary outside any given conjuncture, to the degree they legitimise the capitalist state? How so?
Sri Lankan history over a long period
The added challenge for us when analysing nationalism in Sri Lanka is that it has generally referred to at least two inter-related phenomena: Sinhala Buddhist and Tamil nationalisms. The concerns and preoccupations of Tamil nationalism demand the engagement of the communities most affected by it, specifically in the North and East. And who we privilege as “authentic” representatives from those communities demands a tremendous amount of critical scrutiny, especially in relation to our own understanding of a shared progressive horizon. But as someone who is interpellated as Sinhala—to use Louis Althusser’s term for the compulsion under which we are marked and produced as subjects by the dominant social order—my primary concern here is with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.
If Chatterjee is working with certain assumptions about Indian nationalism, then it is useful for us to consider Sri Lanka’s own positioning on the periphery of the global South, in contrast to India’s status as a regional hegemonic power. In that regard, could Sinhala Buddhist nationalism ever be viewed as progressive in a material, historical sense in resisting not only Western colonialism but Indian hegemony as well? From our vantage point in the present, the answer is a flat no. The tremendous damage done to inter-ethnic relations and the creation of the very national question through the outright repression of minority demands have been the tragic outcome. But how do we understand Sinhala Buddhist nationalism’s trajectory? What accounts for its durability?
Could Sinhala Buddhist nationalism ever be viewed as progressive in a material, historical sense in resisting not only Western colonialism but Indian hegemony as well? From our vantage point in the present, the answer is a flat no. The tremendous damage done to inter-ethnic relations and the creation of the very national question through the outright repression of minority demands have been the tragic outcome
The reality is that Sri Lanka’s polity has been shaped by several factors over the longue durée. The longue durée is the technical French word that was used by the historian Fernand Braudel to describe the underlying material factors that shape politics over centuries. Chief among these factors in Sri Lanka has been the relationship of various kingdoms physically located on the island with those in Southern India and further abroad. In addition, there was the relationship between the monastic community, the sangha, and the state ruled by kings. If we combine these two dimensions that classic studies analysed, including the unsurpassed work done by RALH Gunawardana in his book, The Robe and the Plough, we get a clearer understanding of the feudal mode of production that evolved over centuries, especially during the Polonnaruwa period of the 11th through 13th centuries.
Sri Lanka’s kingdoms, far from being insular, were embedded in the competitive state-building dynamics of the region. Historians such as K.A. Nilakanta Sastri revealed this trend. But the nature of surplus extraction under what Gunawardana called monastic landlordism also revealed a remarkably durable and self-contained polity. Accordingly, the historical continuity between kingdoms must be understood not in terms of an insular “Sinhala” identity. Instead, it must be considered an aspect of the solidity of the social formation that emerged out of a feudal mode of production, and with all the caveats applied to the extension of this concept outside Europe.
In contrast to much of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist rhetoric, however, the Southern social formation was easily dominated by colonial powers not because of what has been interpreted in idealistic terms as “civilisational decline,” but because of social and class contradictions that accumulated over centuries. Starting from the Portuguese and moving onto the Dutch and British, these powers exploited pre-existing divisions within Southern society. In a key example, as Kitsiri Malalgoda has shown in his book, Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, those included the caste tensions that paved the way for a split between the Siam nikaya, then dominated by the govigama caste, and the Amarapura nikaya, which was created in the interests of the salagama, durava, and karava castes.
In this context, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism emerged as an ideological force not by way of a rejection of the entire colonial capitalist structure. Instead, nationalism selectively appropriated its benefits by asserting the need to consolidate a class of Sinhala capitalists. Here, as Newton Gunasinghe pointed out in a brief yet stimulating conclusion to his Masters Thesis, the chafing under colonialism legitimised the acquisitive instincts of a new Sinhala entrepreneurial class through the modern discourse of “Protestant Buddhism.” That included the nationalist turn to anti-Semitic tropes to delegitimise minority businesses. In addition, it meant accepting the place of the Sinhala Buddhist nation within a global civilisational hierarchy via its “Aryan” identification. As many scholars have noted, Anagarika Dharmapala was at the forefront of these trends.
We can go further into the resulting dynamics and tensions within Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, including the emergence of a parallel perspective rooted in a romanticisation of the peasant by politicians such as D.S. Senanayake. We can discuss the constraints that emerged through the construction of a welfare state that accepted the nationalist solution to the agrarian question. Namely, a strategy of peasant colonisation that excluded the Upcountry Tamil and other minority communities. But the point is that Sinhala Buddhist nationalism emerged and has been revived during key conjunctures in which the aspirations of different groups, such as the middle class, are articulated in a way that preserves rather than challenges the dominant social order. Defending that order means accepting Sri Lanka’s dependency within capitalist imperialism. It in fact means accommodating those structures within the stunted horizon of “catching up.”
The character and future of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism
Today’s moment, shaped by the 9 July uprising and the economic crisis, is no different than previous manifestations of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in that sense. With the current Government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe desperately trying to consolidate its power, it is relying on the tried-and-true rhetoric of blaming “insults against Buddhism” and closing the space for dissent in general. The comparative implications were sketched in a recent Daily FT OpEd by Harindra Dassanayake and Rajni Gamage. But the Government lacks the social base that was created by, and which was also shattered under, the Rajapaksas. Still, the underlying anxieties around the loss of social and class status can easily be weaponised by a new, especially (proto-)fascist movement. It may capture the dejected, wavering middle classes. It could further deal with working people through passive incorporation into capital’s project of wage repression for the alleged purpose of accumulating national wealth.
Such a potential movement could bear many of the hallmarks of fascism that have been described by Marxist theorists from Antonio Gramsci to Nicos Poulantzas. But it is not enough to stop at a conjunctural analysis of these trends. Instead, we must take critical analysis as an opportunity. We must explore Sinhala Buddhist nationalism from the 19th century onwards and its discontinuous relationship to a much deeper social formation, in addition to grasping its inherently comprador logic. Characterising Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as comprador may seem contradictory to all those who view the creation of a “national bourgeoisie”—in addition to proxy concepts such as “machine industry”—as the main road to the revival of the country during the economic crisis.
Nevertheless, it is clear that because of the very nature of Sri Lanka’s modern incorporation into the capitalist imperialist world system, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism cannot challenge the country’s intrinsic subordination. Instead, such nationalism will appropriate and deflect resistance, including attempts to develop an actual framework of self-sufficiency that links technical innovation to ideological struggle by engaging the pluralistic politics of working people.
The question, then, is what alternative imaginary of community in Sri Lanka can help us understand the need of the Left to capture state power, in the broadest sense, while also pushing beyond the narrow boundaries of the state as theorised by Tom Nairn, Partha Chatterjee, and others? That remains a separate question, no less dependent on first understanding what drives Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.