SBD de Silva: Marxist Scholar Extraordinary … Sharp Mind, Simple Life-Style

Gamini Seneviratne,  courtesy of The Island, 18 June 2018

SB who passed away last week at the age of 93 was undoubtedly the foremost analyst we have had of what his principal work defined as “The Political Economy of Underdevelopment”.  In that work, first published in 1982, as the blurb puts it, Dr. de Silva dealt with the theory of underdevelopment as he attempted a synthesis between the internal and external aspects of underdevelopment. In the Marxist tradition he focused on the impact of the external on the internal as the dominant reality.

Front Cover
RoutledgeMay 23, 2012 – Business & Economics – 646 pages

First published in 1982, this reissue deals with the theory of underdevelopment, as Dr. de Silva attempts a synthesis between the internal and external aspects of underdevelopment and, in the Marxist tradition, focuses on the impact of the external on the internal as the dominant reality.Viewing underdevelopment as a problem in the non-transformation to capitalism, this analysis is in terms of the character of the dominant capital and of the dominant classes. Underdevelopment thus encompasses the ‘traditional’ peasant economy and also the export sector where the ‘modernizing’ influence of colonialism was felt. The book finally considers how the contemporary internationalization of capital affected the economies of the Third World.

Viewing underdevelopment as a problem in the non-transformation to capitalism in terms of the character of the dominant capital and of the dominant classes, Dr. de Silva shows how underdevelopment encompasses the `traditional’ peasant economy and also the export sector where the `modernizing’ influence of colonialism was felt. He demonstrates that the so-called ‘modern’ plantation agriculture was essentially inefficient.

He finally considers how the contemporary internationalization of capital affected the economies of the Third World in all the most negative ways that are susceptible to such analysis.

 SB  worked in several institutions here and abroad. His primary location was the Central Bank. His was too acute an intelligence not to draw envy, particularly from those who could hurt his career. His own disregard for the niceties demanded by hierarchy did not help.

 In the early 1970s he served as Director of Industrial Policy and Economic Research (a position that was added to my ‘portfolio’ at the ministry of Industries and Scientific Affairs in 1974) before moving, as its Deputy Director, to the Agrarian Research and Training Institute. (Some years later I was to serve as its Director from 1989 to 1994 and in 2004-2005).

I mention those circumstances as they may have accounted for his frequent requests for my views on various aspects of agricultural and industrial policy. Such requests would be made during SB’s working hours that extended from 3.00 a.m. to late afternoon.

 What he particularly bemoaned was the failure of our economists to address the rationale behind the policy framework established by the United Front government in 1970 and the considerable achievements that followed. I hoped he would do all that; by the time I realized that all along he had been prompting me to undertake that task, I was even less competent to put together the relevant data or to conceptualize the tenor of those events.

SB was especially generous towards aspiring scholars whose theses / dissertations he examined with attention and with the kind of acute awareness of what a subject required. Such concern is rarely to be found in any sphere of life. And, as it would appear, not readily appreciated by its beneficiaries.

He neither smoked nor took alcohol and well into his eighties for the most part used public transport. It is tempting to see in such features of his ‘life-style’ an inevitable extension of his academic philosophy.

He should be okay in his further journey through samsara.

    ***  ***

Michael Roberts: I support Gamini’s Vale wholeheartedly. I used to bandg into him often at the Archives in Vidyodaya University in the late 1960s and/or early 1970s . We used to chat during breaks and also met occasionally at Kumari Jayawardena’s place. SBD was always generous with his findings and views. I learnt from him though I did not share his theoretical leanings.

Like a genuine scholar SBD did not hold it against me that I challenged one dimension of his earlier work pertaining to the alleged loss of waste lands as a result of British capitalist development in the Kandyan highlands viz “The Impact of the Waste Lands Legislation and the Growth of Plantations on the Techniques of Paddy Cultivation in British Ceylon: A Critique”, Modern Ceylon Studies, 2: 157-96. Here his views linked Marxist thinking with standard nationalist excoriation of the British plantations which had been presented (by the Coreas in particular) since the early 20th century … and then received its apotheosis in the Report of the Kandyan Peaantry Commission.

My criticism was on empirical grounds  and was from a conservative position.  It is ironic that some of the outspoken lawyers who pressed the nationalsist case on this issue were among the most voracious land accumulators at peasant expense via partition cases and standard capitalist operations ( alter finding on my part)

*** ***

ALSO SEE

Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta:  “One Of Sri Lanka’s Greatest Economists: SBD De Silva,”  19 June 2018, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/one-of-sri-lankas-greatest-economists-sbd-de-silva/

 

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