Regi and his political evolution

Renowned academic Regi Siriwardena’s 5th death anniversary fell on December 15. Here his son Amal recalls...

Most people who knew Regi in the earlier part of his life think of him as an ex-Trotskyite. Certainly the formative political influence on him was Marxism; he was a member of the LSSP from 1941 to 1946 and rose to be a member of the central committee.In the poem he wrote about himself on his eightieth birthday he stated:

And I never caught as my late brother did the Sinhala nationalist flu
An early shot of Marxism perhaps took care of that

The reference was to my uncle C.D.S. Siriwardane who was a member of the 1956 Buddhist commission.

A change from early LSSP days

But when I first got to know something of his political views in the early nineteen sixties they had already changed somewhat from his LSSP days. I was too young then to understand anything about Trotskyism. But I did understand that he had a great deal of sympathy for the socialist countries. This was the period of relative relaxation after Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Joseph Stalin, the brutal dictator who had ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist until 1953. Regi had personally experienced the impact of the fresh wind that was blowing through Eastern Europe during a visit to Poland in 1957.

During this period he was also very much influenced by the writings of the Marxist historian Isaac Deutsche.While he fully appreciated the extent of Stalin’s brutalities, he also felt that the role that Stalin had played in building the Soviet Economy had to be recognized ; as Deutsche had put it ‘ he found Russia working with wooden ploughs and left her working with Atomic piles’.

During this period Regi was also very much interested in the natural sciences, especially in Astronomy and space flight. The Soviet Union scored some phenomenal successes in the years following the launching of the first Sputnik in 1957. Like many other left-oriented people at the time he saw the Soviet achievements as proof of the superiority of Socialism. The Sputniks and the moon shots may have clouded the many shortcomings of the systems that the population had to contend with; the persistent shortages of basic necessities, the long queues, the drab apartment buildings and the endemic corruption.

Global politics

Through discussions at home with visitors I got a good insight into the world politics of the time. When India occupied Goa by force in 1961, and there were cartoons in the local newspapers lampooning Nehru for his betrayal of Gandhian non-violence, Reg’s comment was ‘I don’t believe in non-violence myself. My only complaint is that Nehru tolerated the Portuguese too long’. I also closely followed with him the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962 when the U.S. blockaded the island to force the Russians to withdraw the nuclear tipped missiles they had installed in the island.Regi also had a great admiration for China until the cultural revolution. He used to speak of the folly of the west ostracizing China and keeping her out of the United Nations. He once said the United States would first be overtaken by the Soviet Union which would in turn be overtaken by China. The second part of his prediction is coming true; only it is quite a different China from the one he envisaged!

I will not attempt to deal in detail here why such well informed people did not see the real face of communism for what it was. There were many, but it should be remembered that the West was also by no means innocent. The U.S. had many corrupt and brutal third world client states at the time. After the attempted coup by a group of Christian army and police officers led by F.C. de Saram in 1962, he remarked that if the coup had succeeded Britain and America would have recognized the regime. Still, even during this period when he was very much under the influence of Marxism he was no narrow ideologue. He always conceded that Franklin Roosevelt had made far reaching changes in American Society.

Break with old Left

In 1971 he was appalled by the way the LSSP had reacted to the insurrection, trying to brand the JVP as CIA agents. This was his final break with the old left leadership. He was severely critical of the 1972 constitution, its weak fundamental rights safeguards and enshrining of Sinhala only. ‘ Colvin’s constitution’ he once said ‘was an absolute disgrace’. He became the secretary of the Civil Rights Movement which was formed in response to the post-1971 trend . The CRM had the honour or the ignominy of being trashed on the same day in parliament by both Felix Dias Bandaranaike and J.R. Jayewardene. But in his book ‘Working Underground’ he treated the old left leadership more kindly than I thought he would.

Views on Capitalism

As the years went by he began to change some of his perceptions of the world. He accepted that the capitalist system had shown far more resilience than was expected. Also in the post-Vietnam period he perceived some changes in American strategies. During the crisis at the end of the Marcos regime he asked me, “What do you think they will do in the Philippines? The precedents are one, the case of Diem in Vietnam where they organised a coup and the second was Iran where they did nothing. Both proved to be disastrous.” He felt that the U.S. was likely to back Cory Acquino. When Mrs. Bandaranaike was deprived of her civic rights he told me that Howard Wriggins, who had been U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, had met J.R. and had a long conversation trying to dissuade him--the same Howard Wriggins who had also been here, in a lowlier position during the 1956 election and had predicted the results quite accurately. Regi commented “I suppose ultimately even for the U.S. it is better to have a strong alternative leader”.

In the early eighties I had a wide ranging discussion with Regi on the global developments. By then Deng Xiaoping had started the process of economic reform in China. While he approved of liberalization he was still apprehensive about ‘emphasis on managerial efficiency at the expenses of the original political and social goals’. Finally he made a profound statement: “I think one could construct a justification for socialism independent of the whole Marxist analysis. The main problem with capitalism is not the old things like increasing poverty, these can be refuted. It is that a society organized for profit is not a good one to live in from a human point of view.”

Gorbachev and Perestroika

By the time Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union he was convinced that the system needed a change both politically and economically. He recognized that the highly centrally planned system had become unwieldy. About the political system he said “While western society co-opts dissent, the Soviet system pushes any dissident into total opposition. And it extends even to things that are non-political for instance persecuting abstract artists”. He put aside his distaste for travelling to accept an invitation to the Soviet Union in 1988. He returned still hopeful that the Gorbachev reforms would succeed, in spite of the fact that the shortages and queues were still there. “It was like Sri Lanka 1970-77 “he said. Glasnost (openness) was fascinating to watch as banned books returned to the shelves and taboos were dropped until criticism extended even to the most revered hero of the Marxist pantheon, Lenin. But it soon became clear that Perestroika, the restructuring of the economy, was not working. In fact Gorbachev’s half-hearted reforms only succeeded in making things worse. Towards the end Regi accepted the need to move to a market economy.

After the collapse I once asked him whether the break-up of the Soviet Union was inevitable. “Regrettable maybe” he replied “but inevitable. The changes came too late.”

But later he was appalled at the manner in which the economic reform was enforced and he held the West very much responsible. “It was madness to plunge recklessly like that when people had no experience of capitalism for so many years. At the time there were very respected western economists, bourgeoisie economists, who said this was much too harsh. The result was a complete take over by the mafia’.

Forebodings about JR

From the start Regi had forebodings about J.R. Jayewardene. After 1977 the ethnic problem became a major preoccupation for him. Between 1977 and 1983 he regularly visited Jaffna and had discussions with civil society activists and community leaders. These were the years, when the LTTE was a still a small band, when the opportunity to push through a political solution was missed. Even the military strategy was flawed; as far as the insurrection could have been combated militarily, it was by building up the navy to stem the infiltration from India. Instead, the way the land operations were conducted against a small group dispersed among the civilian population only aggravated the problem. Regi explained to me the classic guerrilla strategy of state repression alienating the civil population, leading to disaffected elements joining the guerrillas leading to more state repression completing a vicious circle.

The referendum was to Regi a confirmation that his worst fears about JR were going to be realized. He was also devastated by the 1983 riots. In a discussion shortly after he referred to what has now become common knowledge but then few people appreciated, the growing Indian role largely fuelled by the change in our foreign policy, “ From 1956 to 1977 under all governments, UNP or SLFP we stuck closely to the Indian non-aligned position. Since then we took a different stand on Diego Garcia, supported Britain over the Falklands and there has been this gossip about an American base in Trincomalee…” At the time many in the Colombo middle class were optimistic that Ronald Reagan would bail them out by establishing the base.

I asked him whether there wasn’t a chance Reagan would ‘go for it’ if it were offered. He shot back. “Remember Reagan would have to consider the consequences on a global level. Would saving JR be a bigger interest in the face of alienating India and pushing her further into the Soviet camp”. He perceived that if opinion in the South continued to resist a political solution Indian intervention at some point would become inevitable. This was prophetic, but neither of us could foresee the manner of the ‘intervention’ or the tragic consequences that would follow.

Hope and despair

Over the next few years I found him vacillating between hope and despair. Often he would speak of the difficulty of convincing the Sinhala masses. Then came the Indo- Lanka accord. Suddenly, those who were in the left-liberal camp found themselves on the same side of the barricades as their bete noire J.R. Jayewardene. Regi was under no illusions about the circumstances of the accord. He commented, “The reality is that it has been imposed on the Sinhalese and the Tamil militants.” He also did not shut his eyes to unpleasant facts.

When I asked about the complicity of the IPKF in burning the houses of the Sinhalese in Trincomalee, he replied, “Yes, there have been too many eyewitness accounts for us to disbelieve it”. Now with the passage of time we can look at these events dispassionately. Those who were ideologically committed to a solution based on devolution of power, supported the accord on the grounds of the devolution proposals. In the process the other implications like the solution being imposed by an external power and the presence of a foreign army on our soil were eclipsed.

The lesson of the experience is that the process by which any solution is reached is as important as the solution itself. In the unseemly haste in which the accord was signed even the devolution proposals were not critically analyzed. Many who would have initially supported the thirteenth amendment later came to see it as a flawed document. The experience of the past has shown us that all hastily drawn up ‘packages’ have been failures and we should rethink our approach to a solution.

Regi’s ultimate political testament

To return to ‘broad politics’ I would like to recall two statements. One which I previously mentioned, that one could build a justification for socialism independent of the whole Marxist analysis. Here, I must stress that I do not mean a return to the old statist models. The other, which he has opined in his book ‘Working Underground’, is that the ownership of the means of production is not the only factor that determines the nature of a society but is merely one of many. These two statements I consider to be Regi’s ultimate political testament

Any comments on this article may be addressed to the writer at

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