[This article is based on the discussions with activists of the Janatha Aragalaya and concerned Sri Lankan citizens. It is a humble contribution towards ongoing debates within the movement. As the French proverb goes: “De choc des opinions jaillit la vérité” – Truth arises from a conflict of opinions.]

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With the deepening crisis of the world capitalist system, we see social upheavals erupting in one country after another. Most recently, Sri Lanka, a relatively small island country in South Asia that is enveloped by a staged debt crisis, has amply revealed circumstances which are infused with revolutionary possibilities. Resembling dark clouds that announce the gathering of a storm, Sri Lanka has shown how rapidly a revolutionary situation can develop.

Heading the floundering ruling establishment, and harbouring perpetual dismissiveness of the swelling discontent, the ruling family of Rajapaksas expectedly attracted massive public ire. Fighting hunger, spiralling inflation, long queues for fuel and rations, crumbling medical facilities, loss of employment, frequent and long power outages, angered citizens came to see the Rajapaksas as well as other mainstream politicians as creators and perpetuators of the grave crisis. Importantly, the distrust of the people has not been limited to individual politicians and ruling cliques whose moral right to govern is being openly challenged, but is a latent distrust for the system itself. At present, majority of the public rightfully views all established parties with deep suspicion and hostility. The majority perceives the rise to power of President Ranil Wickremesinghe as an epitome of the rot in the political system. They see his government as an illegitimate one.

Typically, the three key roles of the modern state are seen by many as administration, repression and representation of the interests of citizens. Needless to say, the Sri Lankan state has failed miserably on administrative counts, but has also exposed that it does not represent the interests of the people. It now fulfils the singular role of a repressive state apparatus. This has been keenly felt by the people of Sri Lanka for whom the failure of the state has been incontestable reality. The current crisis has revealed to majority that the state is not for the people but is designed to protect power, privilege and property of the wealthy, and those that have its patronage. Evidently, this immanent critique of the system itself, which the Janatha Aragalaya (people’s struggle) imbibes, has posed a huge legitimacy crisis for Sri Lankan state. People have proven that they are neither inanimate, inert objects, nor an object of oppression or of reform, but are the real makers of history.

With the consolidation of the ruling elites post 14th July, one phase of the Aragalaya came to an end. In this earlier phase of Aragalaya we saw the masses storming the seats of power. This huge mobilisation of people was marked by a serialised, mechanical solidarity against the Rajapaksas. They were only united in opposition to the ruling establishment. The new phase of Aragalaya must seek to go beyond this and to establish organic solidarity amongst the masses, not just in opposition to something, but for the reconstruction of society on a new socio-economic basis. For the economy to be controlled by the people, the people require a new political system which is more democratic than the present parliamentary system. It is true that the movement has entered into a period of despair. Yet, it is in moments of despair that hope arises. It is when we are in a deep crisis and cannot find a way out within the existing coordinates that we reinvent ourselves for a new beginning to be made.

Sri Lanka is at a crossroad. One path is that dictated by the country’s ruling elites where there will be an expropriation of more and more of the country’s resources by local and foreign capitalists, who seek to use the crisis to launch an economic offensive in terms of enslaving the people and resources of the country, and to impose austerity measures. In recent months, reports have shown that three out of five households (approximately 58.1 percent) have lost more than half of their income, while one in ten households (10.9 percent) have lost all income. Every three in ten households are unsure of where their next meal will come from. It seems that the path which the ruling elite are pushing the country towards is going to be a sliding slope for a vast majority of Sri Lankans. The other path is the people’s path for the revival of the country’s economy. Many pro-people economists have proven that Sri Lanka has internal resources which can be tapped to overcome the crisis. The problem is that the resources are in the wrong hands. The current crisis is consequently not just a conjunctural one but a deeply structural crisis. What is then required is the transformation of economic structures, which makes it imperative for the people to wield political power so as to control the economy. The question of political power, i.e., for whom it is used, has ultimately become the most important historical question.

Revolutionary situation: from resistance to transformation

Developments in Sri Lanka expose how a crisis catapults into a revolutionary situation and harbours the potential for revolutionary transformation. Having said this, although generations of revolutionaries aspire for revolution, when the unprecedented crisis confronts them, they ironically find themselves least prepared to meet the challenges. Revolutionary forces rarely find themselves in conditions that necessarily make their tasks easy. For one, they are surrounded by the uneven development of consciousness regarding required change. Different classes and sections of society imbibe different consciousness levels: some are awakened to the need for revolutionary transformation and some are still in slumber.

We must remember that people are ultimately born into societies that are always already made, and whose rules they learn to internalise as they grow up. We must also remember that the common people are mostly preoccupied with the daily tasks of earning a living and coping with life’s many pains and pleasures. For many, the idea that the world can be changed and can be different, is something which appears far-fetched and unachievable. However, it is simultaneously a fact of life that the majority of us do affirm that life is full of struggles, and tend to make our collective efforts when individually we are unable to fulfil our basic needs. It is within this dialectic that the revolutionary forces are to function and play a role. Whether they play a decisive role is dependent on the politico-ideological dimension to a prevailing crisis. By now we have learnt the hard way that revolutions do not spring automatically from pervasive social crises or mass unrest. Mass upsurges in themselves are not a revolutionary situation. At best they are representative of pre-revolutionary situations, or rather a process which may go a long way without necessarily developing into a revolutionary situation.

Notably, a revolutionary situation is marked by circumstances wherein the oppressed classes no longer want to be ruled in the old way, and when the ruling elites cannot carry forward ruling in the old way. Further, a revolutionary situation is one in which the masses no longer recognise their interests as being embodied by the elected representatives in the ruling establishment. This is not just a governmental or ministerial crisis which can be stemmed by the resignation of any particular politician or just another election within the given coordinates of the prevailing political system. For such a revolutionary situation to materialise into a revolutionary transformation, we need the emergence and spread of revolutionary political ideas and leadership. Without this, a revolutionary situation – the kind that we have seen in Sri Lanka – cannot be converted into a revolutionary transformation.

Undoubtedly, the present conjuncture in Sri Lanka has not only thrown up symptoms of the ruling elite’s loss of legitimacy and enhanced suffering of the oppressed classes, but has also facilitated the growth of mass activity by the oppressed common masses. Nevertheless, as discussed above, even if such basic conditions of a revolutionary situation exist, as they have in Sri Lanka, a revolution is not pregiven. Circumstances have proved time and again that a revolutionary situation by itself cannot spring up a revolution. Neither can a revolution be conjured up by raising far-fetched demands that overlook the immediate context of the conditions and needs of the working class and the multitudes of oppressed and exploited groups. Put simply, the revolutionary leadership cannot simply ‘make’ or construe a revolution. The actual time, space and circumstances for the revolution to actualise can rarely be determined with exactitude. Yet, the tendencies which lead to it, i.e., the building-up of a revolutionary situation, and the required course of action to be taken when it begins, are more determinable. In this regard, the role of revolutionaries is really to prepare for the revolution by using their influence on the working class and other oppressed segments to precipitate the maturing of revolutionary tendencies, as well as by specifically preparing the working class, i.e., society’s vast majority, for tasks that arise with a revolutionary situation.

In historical terms, the raw materials for revolutionary transformation are rarely found already made. They are, instead, concretely made through the interventions of the revolutionary forces. However, far from a deterministic argument that attributes the revolution flatly to a revolutionary leadership’s actions, the Marxist tradition asserts the preparatory role of the vanguard forces. The revolutionary leadership is then, both, producer and product; both a precondition and the result of the revolutionary mass movement. It is the crucial catalyst, which is always one step ahead of the struggling masses; reading the pulse of moment and preparing the struggling people to take their movement to an even higher level.

Sadly, there has been a marked unpreparedness of the Left in adequately capturing the revolutionary situation in Sri Lanka. However, this has not meant that a weakened Left has been missing from action or has failed to leave its imprint on the Janatha Aragalaya. In many ways, the Aragalaya gained substantially as the Left forces stepped into the battle field, tapping their organisational discipline, earlier experiences with grassroot movements, established critiques of the country’s debt crisis, and sharp criticism of local capital and imperialist forces.

In times that have long been characterised by the historic retreat of the Left forces across the world, activists, intellectuals and mass leaders of the Left have tendentially preserved the seeds of radical transformation. They undeniably play a significant role in mass movements; bringing with them the best ideas, discipline and influential organisational tactics. Like a farmer who isn’t waylaid by bouts of poor weather and carefully preserves the seeds to sow and reap them in better seasons, the Left forces make their marked intervention in social movements and brimming crises. The returns, of course, are not always guaranteed, given the prevailing limits of the Left in ideological and organisational terms. To elaborate this observation and concern, it is perhaps best to refer to the dynamics which have been seen within the Janatha Aragalaya.

We have seen the Janatha Aragalaya reconfigure itself periodically, and thus, the movement has been characterised by certain crucial turning points. In terms of its origins and subsequent unfolding, the Aragalaya has to be seen in continuation with earlier struggles that began to surface in 2021 and early 2022. These include various local campaign initiatives like candlelight vigils, as well as struggles of farmers, school teachers, university students, and striking workers in the preceding months. These earlier struggles were largely disjointed, despite the fact that often certain participants were common to them. Since then, we have come a long way. As a result, there is presently a qualitative difference in circumstances. The struggles and appended discontents of the people have converged wherein they have come to perceive the existing ruling establishment and political institutions as a common enemy.

Following the 2021 protests by farmers adversely affected by the ban on chemical fertiliser imports, the struggles of workers in the badly hit export-oriented garment industry, and the intermittent agitations by school teachers and university students demanding higher state expenditure in education, protests began resonating from many quarters in Sri Lanka. By February this year, weekly protests surfaced in cities like Colombo as concerned citizens coordinated through social media posts to register their discontent, particularly against the mounting power and fuel crisis. Campaigns in the cities were usually candlelight vigils, wherein middle-class participants would gather after their work hours, and hold up placards that expressed rudimentary demands and inchoate aspirations at best. The early days were marked by ad-hoc planning, somewhat chaotic sloganeering, and less disciplined mobilisations. Many were first-time demonstrators; some came prepared with protest material while others took time to process campaign instructions. Nevertheless, these initiatives began attracting attention. Concerned citizens gradually infused creativity and energy into the action programs. Steadily, seasoned activists began participating in the campaigns. They brought with them a rich tradition of powerful slogans, the experience of on-the-ground organisational work, progressive protest art, and so on. Incoherence soon gave way to more streamlined action and demands. Spontaneity of action was replaced progressively by coordinated planning.

As the economic crisis deepened in Sri Lanka, the queues for ration and fuel grew longer, despair spread enmasse, and weekly and later daily protests gained momentum. However, these would still have fizzled out if not for the Left’s intervention. The evolving protests often incited state repression, which generated a reaction. Progressive activists, student organisations and trade unions increasingly threw in their lot with the rising tide of mass discontent, giving it greater shape and direction. In no uncertain terms, the movement acquired a Left-wing tilt.

The Aragalaya has increasingly proven to be a potent force in terms of driving forth new possibilities for democracy in the backdrop of a collapsing discredited regime. On 9th July when lakhs gathered in Colombo and proceeded to storm the Presidential Secretariat, the moment was pregnant with a revolutionary anti-systemic thrust. People showed that there was no room for fear. However, since 9th July, the movement has faced reversals, owing to a crucial missing link: a persistent revolutionary leadership that syncs the initiatives and evolving aspirations of the masses with the totality of revolutionary struggle; bringing them to higher levels of consciousness. It is here that the forces of the Left have truly faltered.

From self-criticism to the new Aragalaya

In real terms, on 9th July, the struggling masses came very close to grabbing political power. But sadly, from their vast and vibrant congregations, the desired revolutionary transformation did not take place and the institutionalisation of people’s power did not take off. In the subsequent days and run-up to the (s)election of Ranil Wickremesinghe as President, the people’s power was lying in the streets; it was there for the taking. However, the Left forces could not consolidate the gains of the mass upsurge and failed to utilise the transformative potential in the revolutionary situation. From a strategic vantage point, the movement rapidly lost the advantage. Thus, although the Aragalaya targeted not only individual politicians like the Rajapaksas but also the wider ambit of corrupt political forces – as evident in the parallel slogans of “Gota Gedera Yanu” and “225 Ma Gedera Yanu” – the bulk of people’s energy was overtly focused on dislodging certain individuals from political power; indicating the tendency for the ruling establishment to still hold sway with the ouster of particular politicians. As the well-known Sinhalese proverb goes: inguru deela miris gaththa wage (exchanging ginger for chilli), we have simply got rid of something bad and got something worse in return. So, the Rajapksas have been replaced but the same ruling clique and political system remain intact; in fact, in a more offensive reincarnation.

Saddled with limitations like inadequate organisation and insufficient consciousness, the Left stumbled to precipitate and transform the revolutionary situation into a full-scale revolution. Essentially, the revolutionary forces let the opportunity slip out of their fingers. The Left in Sri Lanka were still largely helmed in by the ideological coordinates of bourgeois representative democracy. One major Left party competed in the openly denounced 19th July election in which a discredited Parliament voted for the new President. Similarly, other Left forces lacked a concrete revolutionary agenda, a socialist program that would have forestalled the regrouping of the ruling elites and broken the back of the old order. Apart from ambiguous and vague pronouncements of a people’s council (in singular) that would seemingly act as a consultative body and merely a pressure group on the Parliament, lacking any autonomy and existing as an appendix of the given state machinery, the other Left interventions had little to offer.

Grabbing the moment, the ruling establishment proceeded to regroup itself and resolutely reinstall the status quo. It has aggressively promoted an International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal as the panacea for the country’s troubles, manufactured myths of better times to come, and unleashed a backlash on Aragalaya leaders. Strategically, in a speech at the inauguration of the third session of the Parliament on 3rd August, President Wickremesinghe was also seen (mis)appropriating certain ideas circulating among the Left forces, namely, the idea of a people’s council (in singular). Projecting that the future constitutional reforms would include the introduction of a “national assembly”, consisting of all political party leaders, and a “people’s assembly” that would comprise so-called ‘representatives’ of all stakeholders, President Wickremesinghe’s sinister intentions were well exposed. Wickremesinghe’s “people’s assembly” is akin to preparing a soup with no nutritional value. The ingredients of this soup are well known, i.e., preservation of the representative system and attempts to co-opt notables among the people in order to pacify the movement and pave the way for austerity measures.

Far from recognising the voice of the masses, Wickremesinghe’s “people’s assembly” is a convenient misuse of the Left’s loosely articulated ideas on people’s self-rule. The “people’s assembly” that Wickremesinghe speaks of would be a bureaucratised extension of the given state apparatus wherein handpicked funded NGOs, so-called ‘civil society’ groups that are middle-class bastions, and trade unions tied to existing mainstream political parties will stand in for the real representatives of the struggling masses. We should not fall prey to such sham participatory democracy under the tutelage of ruling elites. Further, we should remember that even in the existing Constitution of Sri Lanka, it is mentioned that people have legislative power and can be asked to give their opinion via a referendum–only, of course, if they are called forth, i.e., if a Bill is approved by the ruling Cabinet to be submitted to the people. Clearly, the authority to initiate a referendum lies with the ruling establishment and not with the people. The point remains, why the ruling establishment would pursue such constitutional provisions which undermine its own prerogatives.

From one gang of thieves that looted the country’s people and its resources, we have then simply watched a new gang of thieves let loose. Armed with Emergency powers, the ruling establishment is consciously wielding draconic measures to instil fear, and to ensure compliance to the IMF-dictated austerity measures. Aragalaya activists and leaders have increasingly been reduced to a firefighting mode, having being confronted with arrests, illegal detentions of activists, and mounting legal cases. With the agitating crowds having receded to their homes and villages, the activist circles in Colombo appear to have been isolated, thereby becoming more easily a target of state repression. Fatigue and fear have consequently set in. But this is not all. The easy co-option of the idea of a people’s council by the ruling establishment reflects the inadequacy of how the Left has been envisaging the form and content of people’s self-rule. Can a people’s council be envisaged in singular, and can its formation be divorced from the arena of the day-to-day struggles of the people? Now more than ever, the absence of a structure that would have sustained the movement and actualised self-rule of the people is acutely felt.

Of course, situations like this do arise in mass movements as progressive forces, i.e., the Left, grapple with organisational and ideological weaknesses and blind-spots. The potential for regeneration and revival lingers, nonetheless. This is true even of the Janatha Aragalaya. With one phase of the movement coming to an end, another can be said to have begun. At a juncture like this, any self-respecting Left would reflect back on its mistakes so as to overcome them and to prepare for the new, reinvigorated phase of the Aragalaya.

Building people’s power

As argued above, the uniqueness of the Sri Lankan people’s movement has been its anti-systemic thrust, and the resulting legitimacy crisis that it has posed for the state. The Aragalaya has drawn ample attention to crucial questions, namely, the question of who rules and the question of how such rule is managed. The answer to these questions essentially connects to how the battered economy will be controlled. Would the economy be controlled and organised in the interest of the greed of the wealthy, or would it be managed and organised in the interest of the needs of the common masses? For the revolutionary forces and common people, a new, better future is attainable only with the control over the economy. And such control over and reorganisation of the economy demands a radically different political system.

We often come across conservative, presumptuous voices from a section of the middle classes that the Aragalaya has only become about politics whereas it should think about and contribute to the rebuilding of the economy. But it is precisely to rebuild the economy that everyone should become very conscious of politics. In reality, politics is economic struggle through other means. In this light, loosely-articulated demands of the Aragalaya’s earlier phase have proven to be a roadblock. How do we transcend the ongoing repression and loss of momentum so as to defend the ground covered and recapture the moment by firmly setting the agenda of popular aspirations? We definitely need a clear-cut strategy; one that can help us overcome the widespread fear that the desperate Wickremesinghe regime seeks to instil by arresting and heckling activists and leaders. A reconfigured strategy is one which ensures that activists do not remain at the receiving end of the state’s brutal backlash. A new modus operandi is the need of the hour.

For one, protest camps and sit-ins in Colombo alone will serve little purpose for a reinvigorated Aragalaya. At present, a sole dependence on urban-based protest camps and city-centric action programs are a format that allow activists to remain an easy target for a regime that is hunting down organisers and influencers of the movement. Let us recall that the Aragalaya has continually reflected resilience due to its percolation to spaces and people beyond the centre of Colombo. Now more than ever, we need to spread out our forces. The recent protests coordinated across cities is a welcome move in this direction.

The Aragalaya must sustain itself as a pole that attracts and absorbs the everyday struggles of the people. This convergence of struggles and mass discontent can alone create the synergy that a reinvigorated Aragalaya urgently demands. The movement, hence, needs to reach but also consolidate itself everywhere – in serpentine queues for fuel and ration, in partially functioning factories, in gloomy export processing zones, in paddy fields, in the desperate hungry eyes that peer out of broken windows in city slums, and within homesick migrant workers and underpaid plantation labourers. From door-to-door campaigns to leafleting in lacs; from street corner meetings to participating in local struggles, the Aragalaya will end its perceived separate identity from the people so as to become one with them. This way a stage will be reached where everyone would organically say “ApiAragale”.

It is possible that some may consider the spreading out tactic as diffusing the movement’s energy and resources. However, as the repressive state surgically targets central protest camps, we must resist our isolation from the labouring poor and common masses – the key fighting force. For the Left forces, the synergy created by the continuous convergence of struggles and discontents prevalent beyond established protest camps is precisely what will enhance the capacity of the working class and labouring poor to dismantle the old order. More specifically, the revolutionary forces are to facilitate the making of normal, ordinary people into a new people by entering into the arena of struggle. In this journey of coordinating expansive struggles of the people, the core comprises the classes in society whose structural location is such that they bear an objective interest in revolutionary transformations. It is they who are to be brought in as the core base of the Aragalaya. To elucidate, in a train journey there are some travellers who alight before others as their destined station nears. There are some travellers who stay aboard till the last stop. The Aragalaya is a journey that revolutionaries have embarked upon. They must recognise those who are willing to travel the last mile to the final destination, and must not be waylaid by those who alight early, or a thief who pulls the chain to jump off.

At this juncture, the absence of a concrete roadmap for actualisation of people’s self-rule poses a huge threat, and is a concern that the new modus operandi must address. Thus, we must recognise that unprecedented times necessitate the envisaging of democracy in new, revolutionary ways. Mass people’s assemblies (in plural) could be bodies that enable the people to participate in ruling themselves, and constitute a crucial move towards people’s control over the economy. We must strive then to build a political system in which no law can be made without the consent of the people’s assemblies, and the parliament, as a representative body, is under continuous check via the people’s assemblies.

Expectedly, people’s assemblies will not emerge everywhere or overnight, but we must strive to create them and begin where the Aragalaya’s links are the strongest. In effect, this means a persistent effort to call for mass people’s assemblies on important immediate concerns. The revolutionary forces can expect an eager response most immediately from the hotspots of the movement. Nonetheless, our endeavour must be larger and more expansive. Indeed, the endeavour of gathering people in their immediate locales entails persistent and tremendous legwork. Yet, it guarantees the spread of a revolutionary political consciousness in favour of self-rule across cities, towns, villages and neighbourhoods. This strategy marks not only a crucial way forward in winning the trust of the people and consolidating the Aragalaya beyond Colombo. It also creates a manageability crisis for the state, which will find it hard to suppress a groundswell across districts when compared to intimidating the movement in its pockets in Colombo.

The mass people’s assemblies that gradually emerge in various cities, towns and villages should take upon themselves the task to deliberate on the most pressing issues in the country, and to pass resolutions on them. Herein, committees of dedicated activists stand to play a pivotal role in taking forward the work of the people’s assemblies and in facilitating the passing of people’s resolutions that consistently underwrite the legitimacy of the state. In effect, these committees of on-the-ground activists will represent nascent people’s councils in every mass people’s assembly. The people’s council can be expected to gradually evolve from the regular assembling of people in struggle and their meetings/assemblies. In this way, a people’s council – comprising of the advanced segments of the struggling masses – will metamorphose into a permanent deliberative body of the local people’s assembly. Meanwhile, the people’s assembly would be routinely convened for deliberation and voting on crucial matters.

Typically, the process of forming people’s councils requires different stages: i) calling people to partake in and form local assemblies around concrete demands, and using the site to pass resolutions; ii) gathering the consent of the people in every assembly for the formation of a people’s council within it, which will undertake all the necessary measures to assist the materialisation of resolutions passed by the assembly. Once formed, the people’s council in every local people’s assembly will predictably evolve through different avatars. From an organ for organising resistance, it will then start building more power on behalf of the struggling masses, with of course the active consent of the assemblies. It will start asserting its authority and command over local administration; public supplies; and management of schools, hospitals, markets and workplaces. It will continue to expand into more and more fields, depending on how much confidence and support it manages to garner. The mass support will provide the people’s councils coercive power against erring administrators, corrupt politicians and other enemies of the people.

To reassert, this is a format of dual power which allows for a multitude of centres of people’s self-rule, and of resulting contestation with the repressive ruling establishment. The generalisation of popular power and people’s will, which will be the outcome of the Left’s embeddedness in local struggles, would then translate into an intense legitimacy crisis for the bourgeois state; in effect rendering it paralysed once the people’s councils supported by mass assemblies are strong enough for a major part of the public services to identify with them. For example, the expanding authority of people’s councils could reach a level where the staff of the Ceylon Petrol Corporation are compelled to reject the orders of the Minister of Energy in favour of the resolutions passed by the wider constellation of people’s assemblies; in turn reflecting the administrative paralysis of the bourgeois state. As sector after sector is gradually compelled to acknowledge and abide by the mandates of the mass people’s assemblies, it wouldn’t be long before the most repressive apparatuses of the ruling establishment will also begin to crack. Hence, if the phenomenon of dual power is widely extended, to include even sectors of the police, it is clear that what is involved is a total paralysis of the bourgeois state apparatus and of the capacity of the ruling class to take centralized political initiatives.

In recommending such a new modus operandi, we do recognise the strengths and weaknesses of the Aragalaya in different regions and classes. We also understand that there will be an intermediate stage where the possibility of people’s assemblies being convened, and people’s councils being subsequently formed, will emerge in certain places without such possibility existing everywhere. Somewhere it has to be the first. After this intermediate stage, when the calling of mass people’s assemblies and formation of people’s councils in them is a generalised phenomenon, we will be bound to enter the stage of centralisation of people’s councils into an apex people’s council / congress of people’s councils. Through this mobilisation we can issue ultimatums to the executive presidency and parliament to decide where they stand in the battle for real democracy. How much time it will take for such a moment to arrive will depend on many contingent factors, and the preparedness of the masses. More importantly, we may see the earlier arrival of such a moment based on the Left’s revolutionary endeavours. We cannot, in other words, succumb to the partial loss of momentum in recent days, and need to rise to the occasion to play a definite catalyst role.

To reiterate, people’s councils (not in singular but as a network of councils) need to be developed from below as a medium of struggle and as an active organ of alternative rule. Evidently, the Left forces need not seek legitimation of these bodies from the existing state because in themselves the people’s assemblies and people’s councils are the alternative power; the proto revolutionary state in the making. Put simply, the efforts of the revolutionary forces to spread out and consolidate through the installation of institutions of people’s self-rule, are precisely the efforts that embody the erosion of the existing state system, and the unequivocal transformation of the state. How the institutions of self-rule will concretely emerge, or what could be the names of such bodies is not certain. However, we need to be clear about the nature of such bodies. Such bodies will be an embodiment of the aspiration of the people to control the polity.

We know that we are living in an era wherein the mood of the masses is that the parliamentary system is run through manipulation of the people and usurpation of power. Such discontent is far from misplaced, given the bankruptcy of representative democracy as it exists today in many parts of the world. Representative democracy is a colonial construct in several countries. It served to propel native elites into positions of power brokering with colonial authorities. Hence, for a long time, the edifice of representative democracy allowed the wealthy to dominate the formation of ‘representative’ institutions like legislative assemblies and legislative councils. In other words, explicit rules of polity and institutional set-ups were erected as effective trenches around the property and privilege of the dominant sections and colonial power. Even after the transfer of power from the colonial elite to the native elites, the basic structure persists; albeit with certain cosmetic changes. In this way, the inner core of representative democracy remains consistent in terms of alienating the power of people and transferring it to political institutions, like Presidencies, Parliaments and Cabinets, on which the people have little control.

Repeated reproduction of this form of governance has made people accustomed to take the existing form of representative democracy as sacrosanct and the final form of democracy. It has nurtured a paralysis in thinking that compels people to reduce their involvement simply to the search for better representatives in ritualised elections held every few years. The point to note is that this overall process and the resulting government formation renders people powerless every five years. Having cast their vote in routine elections, the people are subsequently alienated from decision-making. Within this form, people alienate the right to rule themselves, and transpose this right to elected representatives. These representatives become a power unto themselves who represent their electors, more or less, as they please. In other words, they are not delegates mandated by the views of the electorate. The hierarchy between rulers and ruled remains. And so does the perpetual possibility of getting betrayed. It is, thus, important to decolonize democracy, and for people’s movements to envisage democracy in new, revolutionary ways. In this light, our forthcoming strategy must be based on differentiating between the pervasive distrust for a political system, and the conviction regarding the viability of an alternative system based on the idea of participation of all people in the direct exercise of power. To reiterate, it is the people’s assemblies and councils which will transpose the masses to higher consciousness levels on their role in actualising people’s power and self-rule.

We might encounter views that assert the unpreparedness of the people and non-conduciveness of circumstances for the aforementioned strategies. This outlook represents the fetishizing of mistakes made and organisational failures; overlooking the crucial fact that extraordinary times create extraordinary consciousness. Indeed, issues that a minority of activists have been raising have now gained a bigger receptive audience than before. Some of the issues like state repression of minorities, which were a taboo and difficult to raise earlier, have become the concerns of many. There is then sufficient possibility of broader alliances of people to be forged and sustained.

There may even be apprehensions that in non-crisis situations and in so-called ‘normal’ times, the people might eventually lose interest and that the people’s councils in assemblies will tendentially become a replication of the same parliamentary representative system. Here we need to understand that the periodic congregation of people is a practice that can become a habit. Is it really possible to turn the clock back once people are accustomed to exercising self-rule? An analogy comes to mind. Large sections of the Muslim community have continued to congregate for Friday prayers, irrespective of ‘normal’ times or those of adversity; indicating how people abide by strong habit formations. If such practices exist in the religious sphere, they can surely exist in the secular realm.

There are also lingering concerns about the course of working-class politics in given times, especially within a reconfigured Aragalaya. Without a doubt, the formation of bodies like the people’s council in mass assemblies will be such that there will be marked variants. We can expect that in some contexts these will comprise a combination of members of political parties, trade unions, student organisations and other mass organisations associated with the struggling Sri Lankan people. In a sense, the people’s councils may arise out of a joint front of existing struggling organisations. Still in other contexts where autonomous actions by worker and peasant organisations have been forthcoming in recent times, the people’s councils can evolve faster into bodies that imbibe the objective interests of the working class and labouring masses. Such consolidation of working-class politics via the people’s councils will lead to an overall growth in social and political consciousness by leaps and bounds. The membership as well as numbers of sympathisers of the struggling organisations will grow substantially. In other words, the potential for the working class and oppressed masses to strengthen their influence on the Aragalaya, and to propel circumstances in a direction contrary to capitalist consolidation, will grow exponentially via the struggles coordinated by people’s councils in mass assemblies.

From multi-class to reinventing the people

Sri Lankan society is a complex class society, and one fraught with many other fault-lines. On one extreme of the prevailing class structure is a wealthy minority that owns and controls the means of wealth creation. On the other extreme there is a vast majority of labouring masses who toil away for others and create the wealth which is appropriated by the wealthy. Between these two extremes is the middle strata; also loosely referred to as the middle classes. Within the middle classes there are variety of people who have different occupations and different levels of access to upward mobility. Notably, the quality of life of this section of society also depends on the wealthy minority. Consequently, the middle classes tend to oscillate between an affluent position, which brings it closer to the wealthy exploiting class, and a position of pauperisation which brings it closer to the working class and oppressed masses. Historically speaking, this oscillation from one class position to another has created a tendency in the middle classes to vacillate on issues. This has included the middle classes’ posturing of their interests in direct opposition to that of the working class and other oppressed segments.

Foregrounding this reality of class structure is crucial so as to assert the disproportionate effect of the economic crisis on different segments of society, and to factor this dimension into future strategy. It is important to note that the ruling elites in Sri Lanka have recently conceded that the country has witnessed the shrinking of the middle classes. Rising prices, reduced salaries, job insecurity and increasing indebtedness have pushed many from the middle strata into precarity. Looking at the complex landholding structure in Sri Lanka, it is likewise evident that poor peasants who work on their own pieces of land are also victims of precarity. Further, it is important to recognise that the highest contributions towards foreign currency reserves are sourced from the country’s labouring masses; mainly women folk employed in the export-oriented garment and tea plantation industries, as well as Sri Lankan emigrant domestic workers who send remittances from their meagre savings. A large portion of the Sri Lankan working class is then faced with intense levels of economic exploitation, stigma and cultural oppression. We have Tamil and Muslim minorities that have borne years of discrimination and state repression. Caste continues to play an intersecting role in the life of majority of Sri Lankans. Regional disparities and uneven development is the basic feature of the country’s developmental story. All these factors are bound to play out in the emerging phase of the Aragalaya. People need to learn to go beyond the prison house of their identities to empathise with all the oppressed sections.

Evidently, the Aragalaya has been a multi-class mass movement, but there is the scope for it to recreate a new people in Sri Lanka. With the continuing pauperisation of the middle classes, including large sections of the peasantry, we are going to see them play their expected role in favour of radical transformations. However, the most strategic role is going to be played by the labouring poor, who generate the wealth of the country yet consume the least. Given their structural location and objective interest in overturning this existing system, it is they who will ultimately decide whether the larger society should sacrifice to make the wealthy, wealthier or whether to chart out a different course for the development of Sri Lanka.

There are times in history when nothing substantial happens in decades, and there are times in history when decades happen in weeks. There is ample possibility that the society and economy envisaged in the objective interest of the labouring poor develops its hegemonic influence over other sections of society sans the wealthy. In a united front comprising a cross section of society, by strengthening our base within the labouring masses and influencing other segments, we shift the balance of power vis-à-vis ruling elites in order to take and consolidate political power so as to transform the conditions of life for the majority. Before more passivity envelops the masses, we must patiently and perseveringly convince people that just as they invest time and resources in their children from childhood to adulthood so as to ensure them a better life, the future of the society also requires their active investment and involvement. Given that the direction of society impacts the quality of individual lives, the future of society is everybody’s responsibility.

It is, hence, a critical conjuncture for the Aragalaya. In the regrouped Aragalaya, we need to be tactically conscious of fault-lines within the ruling elites and between them and parliamentary oppositional parties. However, a lot depends on the Left forces. Fragmentation of the Left forces is a reality stemming from ideological and historical contingent factors. But within the historical bloc against the ruling establishment, the Left forces need to play their role more resolutely and in a united manner. They must forge class unity of workers across different trade unions and party formations. Revolutionary forces need to imbibe more critical toleration towards each other.

Having said this, we do recognise the latent tendency for the struggle to split and follow different paths. Nevertheless, we need to see that even when struggles diverge, how they can be made to converge in striking at the common enemy unitedly. Perhaps what is going to prove more important within the combinations and permutations of these tendencies is the active unity of activists and sympathisers on the ground. In this regard, it is less important to be calculating how much ground we have lost, and more important to enumerate how much baggage of the past we have left behind in order to unitedly march towards accomplishing the historical task that confronts us.

Maya John teaches at the University of Delhi, India. She has been part of the Left movement for around two decades. Email: maya.john85@gmail.com.


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