Socialism: Ideals, Ideologies, and Local Practice

By C. M. Hann | Go to book overview

Chapter 7

Anthropology and the politics of socialism in rural Sri Lanka

Jonathan Spencer

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka may seem an unlikely candidate for inclusion in any assessment of socialism as an anthropological problem. Its political difficulties have attracted the attention of some distinguished anthropologists (Obeyesekere 1984; Tambiah 1986; Kapferer 1988), but usually for quite other reasons, like the intractability of its ethnic problem and the steady growth of political violence. Yet the country has retained the designation 'socialist' in its official title, and most of the different agents involved in recent politics have at some time or another in the recent past thought it appropriate to identify themselves as socialists.

The country designated itself 'socialist' in the early 1970s when a government of the left (led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)) was in power. The name was introduced as part of a new constitution written by a sometime Trotskyite, itself no small novelty in comparative politics. The government of the time was heavily committed to state intervention in the economy, but spent most of its period in office on the defensive as the economy tottered from crisis to crisis. Eventually it was ousted by a party of the right (the United National Party (UNP)) in 1977. The new government was committed to an 'open economy', which it was thought would encourage native enterprise, and to the swift dismantling of its predecessor's cumbersome corporatist policies. This party has been in power ever since, to the rage of the dwindling band of true believers on the Left, who have busied themselves with intermittent internal warfare and puzzled their supporters with their inability to present a credible alternative to the populism of their rivals.

So far, perhaps, so familiar. But Sri Lanka has its idiosyncrasies too. The UNP, whatever its rhetoric, has kept a strong grip on the country's material resources, and carefully retained the claim to 'socialism' when it rewrote the constitution soon after coming to power. The apparent success of the 'open economy' in the 1980s has to be set against evidence of increasingly violent disaffection amongst the young people of the country. First Tamil youth, and later Sinhala youth, rallied around the flags of linguistic and religious identity in their support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam

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