The Politics of Opposing Imperialism


Contrary to what some leftist commentators may think, Marx and Engels didn’t always reduce the problems of the world to economic imperatives. They were, however, concerned if not preoccupied with class, and this dominated their thinking.

Viewed from a certain perspective, there seems to be a contradiction here. How can you dwell on class without resorting to economic reductionism of some kind, which reduces to irrelevance factors like ethnicity and sexuality – ‘micro-politics’, to borrow a term – and casts them as inadequate explanations of issues that concern socialists?

Nationalists Vs Western imperialist

The crisis in Sri Lanka reveals this contradiction well. On the one hand are defenders of the status quo – nationalists, mostly – who decry protests as some Western imperialist project to oust them from power. On the other hand are those who contend that the Rajapaksas are the chief impediment to democracy in the country.

Caught in-between are the radical commentators, who sway both ways without advocating either line. I am, of course, yet to come across someone among them who critiques the protests. This is because the critique is often implied. Here, for instance, is one of Sri Lanka’s leading commentators on political economy abroad, Asoka Bandarage:

“The young ‘GotaGoGama’ protesters who demand President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation seem to be unaware of the global dynamics of the Sri Lankan crisis. Perhaps local and foreign interests guiding the protests may want to keep it that way. They are certainly not encouraging the protesters to join global calls for much-needed debt cancellation, debt swaps and regulation of capital market borrowing to prevent debt crises occurring in the first place.”

Prabhat Patnaik is more nuanced, but his take is essentially the same:

“So much has been written on the Sri Lankan economic crisis that the facts are by now quite well-known… But on the question of who is responsible for this turn-around in Sri Lanka’s fortune, from being a ‘model’ welfare state to being the ‘sick man’ of South Asia, there is less agreement. While everybody would agree that the Rajapaksa Government must take responsibility for the collapse, there is much disagreement on where exactly the Government’s culpability lies.”

Now, the issue for me is this. If we adopt an anti-imperialist position in the context of Sri Lanka’s crisis, should we support the status quo? If we defend the protesters, conversely, should we overlook their limitations? Socialist and radical commentators do not bother themselves much with this issue, because very few of them adopt an either/or position: neither Bandarage and Patnaik, for instance, absolves the Rajapaksas.

In two recent essays, Rohini Hensman takes issue with leftists who absolve the Rajapaksas. Hensman’s book ‘Indefensible’ had earlier laid bare the problem of defending authoritarian leaders on the flimsy grounds that they “oppose” imperialism. Socialists, she argues, should not be defending the Rajapaksas any more than they should be defending Stalin.

Economic level problem analysis

I have no issue with this position. It dovetails with my earlier point: Marx and Engels weren’t so reductionist as to analyse every problem at the economic level. What follows from that is a very simple proposition: critiquing imperialism, and neoliberalism, should not blind you to the failings and limitations of those seen as opposing them.

Hensman’s take on this, in her book, is worth quoting here.

“Imperialism is opposed by struggles for national liberation, which constitutes one element in a democratic revolution – the people cannot rule themselves so long as they are ruled by another Nation-State – but not the only one. Genuine anti-imperialists oppose all imperialisms, while pseudo-anti-imperialists oppose some while supporting others.” (Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism).

Hensman’s critique of the Rajapaksas is, essentially, that they represent the peak of Sri Lanka’s long tryst with antidemocratic, racialist politics. In attacking almost every regime since 1948, she lets off no one: not even the JVP-NPP, which today is enjoying something of a reputation in light of the collapse of the political order. She implies that supporters of the Rajapaksas, from the Left, have been defending them by summoning the bogey of Western imperialism. In her view, this is a hollow and disingenuous tactic.

The critique is interesting, even valid. But in elaborating on the excesses of the Rajapaksa Government, she herself leaves out some pertinent points. Whereas Patnaik, Bandarage, and Jayati Ghosh clearly trace the country’s problems to its dependence on foreign debt, a product of the country’s shift to right-wing neoliberalism in 1977, Hensman sees politics, not economics, as the major cause for those problems.

Of course, that doesn’t mean she excludes economic factors completely.

“Socialist economists have long advocated a public audit that would repudiate Sri Lanka’s illegitimate debt, in defiance of the IMF. They have argued for importing only essential items like food and medicine and putting in place a public distribution system, while encouraging cooperative producers and defending public ownership of utilities, healthcare and education.”

This is what commentators like Ahilan Kadirgamar and Devaka Gunawardena have been pointing out as well. Now, those who side with the Left, who agree with this diagnosis, but don’t necessarily oppose the Rajapaksas, note that the protesters campaigning against the First Family have neglected these priorities. They contend that the thrust of the Aragalaya was not “in defiance of the IMF”, but was very much in line with it: hence why, in the recent upsurge at ‘GotaGoGama’, those who had earlier been part of the protests faulted protesters for agitating at a time when IMF negotiations were underway in the country.

Anti-radical socialist

A fair critique of the Rajapaksas and their worst excesses would, of course, point out that some of the leading minds of the Aragalaya have been critics of the same policies that are, as Hensman points out, advocated by socialist economists: not too long ago, for instance, they peddled an anti-JVP-FSP line on social media, and criticised the JVP-NPP and FSP when those formations entered the protests. When the IUSF unveiled its “manifesto” last month, many middle-class protesters openly lambasted it, particularly its line on private education. That should tell us something about the politics of the aragalaya.

None of this is to say that the Aragalaya should be opposed. It should not. But to imagine that the protests, leaderless as they are, will see through, or advocate, a radical reform of the country and its economy, would be too optimistic. Just as leftists should not defend the Rajapaksas, hence, they need not be overly cheerful about those protesting the Rajapaksas, especially the middle-classes dotting the landscape at Galle Face Green.

Hensman observes that the easing of ethnic and religious tensions at GotaGoGama suggests a hopeful path for Sri Lanka’s fractured lef”: “the economic catastrophe,” she concludes, “may create the conditions for a democratic breakthrough.” But how, when the very protests she sees as hopeful, and harbouring a better future, have embedded within themselves a deeply anti-radical, anti-socialist line?

About the Author:

The writer is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and columnist based in Sri Lanka who can be reached at [email protected]

By Uditha Devapriya