Spartacist English edition No. 62
Edmund Samarakkody and the Legacy of the Ceylonese LSSP
The Fight for Trotskyism in South Asia
“The struggle for the rebirth of the Fourth International promises to be difficult, long, and, above all, uneven. But it is an indispensable and central task facing those who would win proletarian power and thus open the road to the achievement of socialism for humanity.”
—“Declaration for the Organizing of an
International Trotskyist Tendency,” July 1974,
Spartacist (English edition) No. 23, Spring 1977
Our relations with the Revolutionary Workers Party (RWP) of Edmund Samarakkody in the 1970s constitute a significant chapter in that difficult, long and uneven struggle. By the time of his death in January 1992, Samarakkody’s revolutionary days were well behind him. But at one time, this founding member of the Ceylonese Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) represented a rare breed: a militant won to Trotskyism in the late 1930s who had not been utterly compromised and corrupted by homegrown popular-frontism or by the revisionist current of Michel Pablo, which had destroyed the Fourth International in 1951-53. In outlining the prospects for revolutionary regroupment, the 1974 declaration of the international Spartacist tendency, now the International Communist League, took particular note of Samarakkody’s RWP as having “emerged with integrity from the welter of betrayals perpetrated by the old LSSP” and abetted by the Pabloite United Secretariat (USec) of Ernest Mandel and the craven “International Committee” (IC) of Gerry Healy (ibid.).
For many years, the LSSP stood at the head of a section of the labour movement and was at times the official parliamentary opposition in Ceylon. Its importance extended beyond that small island, as Ceylon provided a staging area for socialist revolution throughout the region, crucially India. In fact, the LSSP played a decisive role in forging the first authoritative Trotskyist organisation in India in the crucible of interimperialist war and anti-colonial struggle. Samarakkody himself was jailed during World War II for revolutionary antiwar activities in Ceylon, and later became a Member of Parliament. But the dominating political event of his life, the apex and the limit, was the parliamentary vote cast in 1964 by him and his comrade, Meryl Fernando, that brought about the downfall of the capitalist coalition government led by the bourgeois-nationalist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), a popular front that included the LSSP, which had degenerated by then into rank reformism. The SLFP was committed, above all, to furthering the domination of the island’s Sinhala Buddhist majority over the besieged Tamil national minority.
We saw in Samarakkody the principled best of old Ceylonese Trotskyism, which was not very good. In the course of our discussions, it became clear that he and his group had not broken from the parliamentarist framework that defined left-wing politics in Ceylon (renamed Sri Lanka, to stress the country’s Sinhala “identity,” in 1972). We learned, for example, that by the early ’70s Samarakkody had repudiated his courageous 1964 vote against the popular front. A projected fusion with the RWP at the First International Conference of the iSt in 1979 fell apart as Samarakkody made it clear that he intended to maintain his provincial operation on the left fringe of the Lankan popular-frontist swamp and would not allow his organisation to be subjected to the scrutiny and correctives of international democratic-centralism. In drawing a balance sheet of our attempts to find sufficient programmatic agreement with the RWP to constitute a common international organisation, we observed:
“Our long fraternal experience with the Ceylonese comrades of the Samarakkody group was our most notable effort to find, in the words of James P. Cannon, ‘the initiating cadres of the new organization in the old.’ This grouping’s last decisive revolutionary act took place in 1964, just at the time of the founding of the organizationally independent Spartacist tendency in the U.S. Had we been capable of forcefully intersecting the Ceylonese comrades at that time, it is conceivable that they might have been won to authentic Trotskyism. But the 40 or so Americans who made up our tendency at that time would have had little authority in the eyes of former leaders of a mass-based party.”
—“Toward the International Trotskyist League!”
Spartacist (English edition) No. 27-28, Winter 1979-80
The iSt/ICL originated as the Revolutionary Tendency of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the early 1960s, formed in opposition to the SWP’s abandonment of the fight for a Trotskyist party in Cuba. Having broken with Pablo in 1953 to form the anti-Pabloite International Committee—a bloc centrally with the Healy group in Britain and the French group led by Pierre Lambert—in 1960 the SWP leadership embraced the same liquidationist methodology as Pablo in response to the Cuban Revolution. As elaborated by Pablo in the years after World War II and continued by his chief lieutenant, Mandel, this tendency rejected the struggle to forge Trotskyist parties, essential to the victory of proletarian revolutions internationally, and instead acted as a pressure group on various petty-bourgeois, non-revolutionary forces (see “Genesis of Pabloism,” Spartacist No. 21, Fall 1972). The RT was bureaucratically expelled from the SWP in late 1963 after the latter reunified with the Mandelites to form the USec.
At its inception and for several years thereafter, the RT stood in political solidarity with the IC of Healy and Lambert. We split definitively from the IC in 1967 when the Healy group came out for support to a classless “Arab Revolution” and a number of other anti-Marxist positions. Our 1979 conference report noted:
“The Samarakkody group is the concretization of the observation that no national revolutionary current can pursue an authentic revolutionary course in protracted isolation from the struggle to build a world party. From the time of our inception as a tendency, the American nucleus of the iSt struggled to break out of enforced national isolation. Through this lengthy process we came to see that the main international currents of ostensible Trotskyism were fundamentally programmatically moribund.”
However, even after the split with Healy, we were aware that there existed local groupings that had not been firmly bound to the liquidationist politics of Pabloism. We looked the longest at the Lambert group, which had broken with Pablo in 1952, because it was the largest repository of cadre dating back to the Trotskyist movement of Trotsky’s time, in the hope that some section of that cadre would break on essentials from that organisation’s rightward course. There followed our protracted engagement with the Samarakkody group in Ceylon. But all these efforts were unsuccessful in winning over a layer of older Trotskyist cadre.
A significant part of our early history as an international tendency was written on the small island of Ceylon. From 1971, when Samarakkody first contacted us, through to the negative resolution of our fraternal relations with the RWP in 1979 and in the subsequent years when a left split from the RWP was established as the Spartacist League/Lanka, we had sporadic, but sometimes intense, contact with Samarakkody and his group. Samarakkody’s “The Struggle for Trotskyism in Ceylon,” which we published in Spartacist (No. 22, Winter 1973-74), was one of the documents upheld in our 1974 declaration as part of the programmatic heritage of the iSt; and for a number of years our press carried articles by Samarakkody reporting on the situation in Sri Lanka. The inability of the RWP to find a road to fusion with our Trotskyist international constituted a crucial test of its left limits as an opposition to the LSSP’s class collaboration.
To describe Samarakkody’s life is to describe the rise and fall of Ceylonese Trotskyism. There are many details of the history of the LSSP which remain obscure to us. The internal life of the early LSSP is poorly documented, much of it having played out informally within a small coterie of the leadership. And much documentation, notably that in Sinhala and Tamil, is presently inaccessible to us. Nonetheless, that history merits serious study if a new generation of revolutionaries is to revive Trotskyism in Lanka and India as part of the struggle to reforge the Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution.
Origins of the LSSP
As a founding member of the LSSP, Samarakkody belonged to a layer of militants who might make better claim to be the founding fathers of their country than the venal pro-imperialist capitalists to whom the British handed power in 1948. Born into a wealthy and aristocratic low-country Sinhalese family in 1912, he was politically active in the early 1930s amid a rise in anti-colonial sentiment and joined the Colombo South Youth League. Young Ceylonese returning from study overseas brought to the Youth Leagues notions of internationalism, socialism and revolutionary change. One of these was Philip Gunawardena, who while abroad had come into contact with various leftist currents, including the Trotskyist International Left Opposition. Many of these young men and women came from a section of the newly prosperous rural bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie; Samarakkody himself qualified as a lawyer in Ceylon and continued to practise law until he died.
The Youth Leagues grew rapidly through their anti-
imperialist agitation in the Suriya Mal (an indigenous flower) movement, a protest against the “Poppy Day” commemoration of British military veterans of the first imperialist world war, and also through their social relief efforts in impoverished villages during a malaria epidemic in 1934-35. In 1932-33, the young militants directly challenged the traitorous role of established labour leader A.E. Goonesinha, who had become increasingly communalist, when they gained leadership of a strike by 1,400 workers, mainly Malayalis from the Indian state of Kerala, at the Wellawatte Weaving and Spinning Mills, the largest textile plant on the island.
Samarakkody was one of 20 or so leftists who founded the LSSP under Gunawardena’s leadership in December 1935. A variety of influences affected these talented and energetic young men and women: Stalinism, Trotskyism, Harold Laski’s Labourite “socialist” reformism and Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian National Congress.
The LSSP was born against the backdrop of an all-sided vacuum of leadership on the island. The native bourgeoisie was weak and venal: the tame Ceylon National Congress was a pale reflection of its Indian analogue. Especially with the implementation in 1931 of the reforms recommended by the British Donoughmore Constitutional Commission, the Ceylonese bourgeoisie enthusiastically collaborated with the British imperialists, accepting ministries in the new State Council, a “parliamentary” adjunct to the colonial administration. The militant labour movement of the ’20s had been dissipated by the economic depression of 1929-1935. The leaders of that movement, such as Goonesinha, had moved decisively toward class collaboration with the employers and racism against workers of Indian origin.
A character in a Romesh Gunesekera short story evokes the situation:
“In those days I was equally dismayed by our political leadership: at the time it seemed to me so uninspired. I wished we were in India where there was so much more of a struggle. Some fight, some idealism. Gandhi, Bose. You know, men who were doing something for their country. But Ceylon seemed full of lackeys. Everyone wanted to be Head Boy in the Governor’s House. How could they? Only when the leftists started up in ’thirty-five did we begin to see a real future. They went out into the villages during the malaria to help our people. And the people recognized their concern. When the elections finally came they responded. I joined up.”
—Romesh Gunesekera, “Ullswater,” Monkfish Moon
(New York: The New Press, 1992)
The LSSP was founded as a broad party fighting for independence, reform and socialism (sama samaja, coined from the Sinhala for “equal society”). It was modernising and secular, though with a soft underbelly in regard to the Buddhist revivalism that was an early response to British rule. The party’s influence grew rapidly, and pretty soon it was the recognised leadership of the struggle for national independence. In 1936, Gunawardena and fellow LSSP member N.M. Perera were elected to the State Council. Though they often sounded like liberal social democrats, they were nonetheless denounced as the “honorable members for Russia, or the Communist members for Ruanwella and Avissawella” by one vehement right-wing opponent, Samarakkody’s own older brother, Siripala (quoted in George Lerski, Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon [Stanford, California: Hoover Institution, 1968]). The LSSP succeeded in establishing a mass trade-union base, particularly in Colombo. Samarakkody was active in the LSSP-led strikes and unionisation drives, and was arrested in Colombo in 1937 for these activities.
As in Bolivia and Indochina, working-class political consciousness arrived sufficiently late in Ceylon that Stalinism was unattractive to militant anti-colonial fighters. In 1935, the Stalinised Communist International (CI) embraced the “popular front,” a new label for the old, social-democratic programme of class collaboration with a supposedly progressive wing of the bourgeoisie. Its application for colonial countries was to build “national united fronts” with the native bourgeoisies. Originally promulgated as a confused and implicitly stagist slogan at the CI Fourth Congress in 1922, by 1927 the “anti-imperialist united front” had become synonymous with the liquidation of the Chinese Communist Party into the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang and the betrayal of the Second Chinese Revolution. The slogan’s revival under the signboard of the popular front with a “democratic” wing of the bourgeoisie was unambiguously class-collaborationist. And with Stalin’s wartime alliance with the Allied imperialists following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, it became evident that the working class was to be subordinated not just to the venal local capitalists but to the “democratic” imperialist overlords. Thus the vanguard section of the proletariat became at least nominally Trotskyist in a number of colonial and semicolonial countries.
The LSSP’s Contradiction
At the heart of this development toward Trotskyism in the LSSP was what became known as the “T group.” Initiated by Gunawardena, this was an informal network with features of both a political tendency and a Young Turks clique. The arrival of Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed, published in English in 1937, had a significant impact among the educated leaders of the T group who could read it. In December 1939, the LSSP Executive Committee passed a motion by 29 votes to five declaring, “Since the Third International has not acted in the interests of the international revolutionary working-class movement, while expressing its solidarity with the Soviet Union, the first workers’ state, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party declares that it has no faith in the Third International” (quoted in Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon). At the next meeting of the Executive Committee, those opposed to this line were peremptorily expelled, without any attempt to take the struggle to the membership.
In good part, the LSSP’s adherence to Trotskyism was nominal and never went very deep. What was lacking was a flesh-and-blood struggle to cohere a revolutionary cadre in opposition to the nationalists and reformists for whom Trotskyism was but a superficial convenience, a talisman against support to the local colonial power. Yet authentic Trotskyism, and the theory of permanent revolution, did provide the revolutionary answers for a party faced with national-democratic tasks of colonial liberation and with leading the workers class struggle to victory.
A central question in this regard was (and is) the national oppression of the largely Hindu Tamil people, the most significant among a number of national, ethnic and religious minorities on this majority Sinhalese and Buddhist island. (Among other minorities were Christians, Muslims and Burghers, the latter being descendants of intermarriages with European colonists.) Linguistically and culturally linked to the people of Tamil Nadu in southern India, the Tamils were divided into two distinct groups. The Ceylon Tamils—concentrated in the Jaffna peninsula and in the northeastern region including Trincomalee, as well as in Colombo—had been established on the island for many centuries and were favoured by the British for positions in the colonial administration. The so-called Indian Tamils had been brought over beginning in the late 19th century to do backbreaking, low-paid work in the highly profitable British-owned tea plantations. The strategic Tamil plantation workers were of triple importance: as key producers in the economy, as a vital element in the struggle against Sinhala chauvinism and as a potential bridge to the Indian revolution.
As long as these heavily low-caste and women workers remained quiescent and isolated in the hill country, possessing neither political nor trade-union rights, they were not seen as a threat. But as soon as they began to assert themselves, they confronted the class-based fears of the bourgeoisie combined with chauvinist prejudices that fed on the majority Sinhalese notion of being a beleaguered minority in the region as a whole.
The LSSP generally stuck to a line of class unity against ethnic division, and throughout this period LSSP meetings were attacked by communalist goondas (thugs). Its developing influence in the working class no doubt played a role in forestalling outbreaks of communalist violence, as had occurred in 1915 with anti-Muslim riots. However, the LSSP was clearly not immune to the prevailing Sinhalese prejudices: for example, in September 1937 it presented a motion to the State Council aimed at a ban on Indian labour immigration. Unlike Lenin’s Bolsheviks, the LSSP did not see the struggle against national oppression as a motor force for the proletarian revolution. The party’s failure to establish a mass base among the strategic Tamil plantation workers was exacerbated by the peremptory manner in which the 1939 split with the Stalinists was carried out, allowing the latter to easily retain leadership of important areas of work, such as among low-caste Tamils in the Jaffna peninsula.
Nonetheless, when an unprecedented strike wave broke out among the plantation workers in late 1939 and early ’40, the LSSP played a leading role in these struggles in Uva Province, and Samarakkody was a key organiser. In May 1940, the LSSP organised a huge rally in Badulla. Staged in defiance of a ban by the authorities, the rally was a spectacular show of strength. This promising work was cut off by the wartime crackdown by the British colonial rulers. The way was left open for the growth of exclusively Indian Tamil formations, pre-eminently the Ceylon Indian Congress (which became the Ceylon Workers Congress in 1950), to gain control of this historically key section of the proletariat. The LSSP’s own later account of this work is revealing:
“The militant leadership provided by the party made a deep impression among the plantation workers. But the party was never able to build on this goodwill because firstly, repression descended on the party immediately afterwards leaving the trade union field in the plantations free to the Ceylon Indian Congress; and secondly because even after the war, the measures of the Government against workers of Indian origin drove these workers quite naturally in the circumstances into the arms of the Ceylon Indian Congress.”
—Leslie Goonewardene, A Short History of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Colombo: LSSP pamphlet, 1960)
There is more to this fatalistic dismissal than the fact that it was written not long before the LSSP’s parliamentarist degeneration culminated in entry into a capitalist popular-front government. Even in its early years, the LSSP perceived no contradiction in Jack Kotelawala being one of its primary organisers among the tea plantation workers and later holding a position as the legal officer of the Ceylon Estates Employers Federation, in which capacity he would appear in court against the workers. Rather than relying on men of independent means, what might have happened if the LSSP had taken a few of the best plantation worker militants and made them full-time party organisers while training them thoroughly in revolutionary Marxism? Unfortunately, the LSSP’s work methods were far removed from such Bolshevik practices.
From its founding, the LSSP was saddled with a profound contradiction. As Charles Wesley Ervin wrote in a 1988 article on the formative period of Ceylonese and Indian Trotskyism: “The LSSP had a split personality from birth. Its leaders were sophisticated leftists, but the LSSP was deliberately intended to be a very broad, ‘soft’ Socialist party, more nationalist than Marxist” (“Trotskyism in India—Part One: Origins Through World War II (1935-45),” Revolutionary History, Winter 1988-89). In a follow-up article, Ervin described Philip Gunawardena and Perera as “opportunist hustlers” and “slick revisionists” (“Trotskyism in India, 1942-48,” Revolutionary History Vol. 6, No. 4, 1997).
Ervin still showed some sympathy for revolutionary Trotskyism when he wrote those articles. However, he has since moved to the right, joining “death of communism” leftists like the British Labourite Revolutionary History crowd in glorifying “the politics of the possible.” In a recent book, Ervin idolises Gunawardena as “the driving force behind the formation and spectacular growth of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), one of those few Trotskyist parties to ever achieve a mass following for a long period of time” (Tomorrow Is Ours: The Trotskyist Movement in India and Ceylon, 1935-48 [Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 2006]). Acknowledging that “in hindsight, there was much about the early LSSP that might seem ‘Menshevik’ or ‘reformist’,” Ervin apologises for this programmatic and organisational Menshevism by claiming that “context is critical. The LSSP was really the first political party that had ever been formed in sleepy Ceylon” (ibid.).
Ervin was far closer to the mark the first time. Ervin notes in his book that Gunawardena “solidarized with Trotsky” in the early ’30s, after a period in the British Communist Party (ibid.). Yet under Gunawardena’s stewardship, the early LSSP studiously avoided taking a stand on the burning questions of the world revolution posed in Trotsky’s struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy. To the extent it dealt with international questions at all, the resolution adopted at the first annual conference of the LSSP in December 1936 called only for solidarity with the Republican forces fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, with not a word on the decisive question of the popular front.
Instead of fighting for programmatic clarity, Gunawardena set out to build a big party on a small island by cutting corners. He promoted the LSSP as follows: “Our party is not a Communist Party.... It is a party which is much less militant and less demanding” (quoted in Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon). He viewed as a model the loosely organised Congress Socialist Party (CSP) of J.P. Narayan, which was an organic part of Gandhi’s bourgeois Congress in India. Gunawardena had befriended Narayan as a student in the U.S., and the newly formed LSSP established fraternal relations with the CSP. Notwithstanding its nominal adherence to Trotskyism in late 1939, the LSSP did not really begin to resolve its internal contradictions until it embarked on the profoundly internationalising experience of fighting to build a Trotskyist organisation in India. And at every decisive step, Gunawardena was an obstacle on the road to forging such a party.
The Heroic Period: the BLPI
The LSSP opposed World War II as imperialist from the outset, and the work among the tea plantation workers was concrete proof that it would pursue the class struggle and national independence irrespective of the consequences for the British war effort. With its tea and rubber production and the strategic harbour of Trincomalee, Ceylon was viewed by Britain as a vital outpost. The Trotskyists raised the call to turn the imperialist war into a civil war and directed revolutionary antiwar propaganda at the large British garrisons in Ceylon and India. Faced with the LSSP’s outspoken opposition to the war and its role in the Uva plantation strikes, the British authorities moved to suppress the socialists, shutting down the LSSP press. While Leslie Goonewardene was instructed by the party to evade capture, the other top leaders—Philip Gunawardena, Perera and Colvin R. de Silva—passively courted arrest, perhaps in fatuous expectation of glorious courtroom battles. On 18 June 1940, a few days after the German army marched into Paris, the three were hauled off to prison. The following day, having returned to Colombo to organise protests in their defence, so was Samarakkody. That he was arrested along with the best-known party leaders likely reflected his prominent role in the plantation strikes.
With the LSSP’s top leaders cut off from State Council seats and their legal careers, the party was propelled in altogether healthier directions. If somewhat arbitrarily, a reckoning had been made with the Stalinists, who made it clear after 1941 that they would sacrifice the struggle for colonial freedom to Stalin’s alliance with “democratic” imperialism. In conditions of illegality, the LSSP moved toward becoming more sharply programmatically defined. This development was to the credit of a new layer of leaders who stepped up to the responsibility. The party had hitherto been too dependent on the top leaders and lacked the requisite organisation for revolutionary functioning, let alone under conditions of illegality.
In the context of repression on the island and the massive upsurge of nationalist agitation across the Palk Straits in India, the LSSP was powerfully compelled to the conclusion that the revolution in Ceylon was integrally connected to that in India. At its 1941 conference, the LSSP proclaimed its transformation into a Bolshevik cadre organisation, and simultaneously advanced the perspective of actively fighting to build a Trotskyist party in India. The LSSP had already begun undertaking practical steps to this end. In late 1940, in consultation with a small Trotskyist grouping in Calcutta, the LSSP sent Bernard Soysa to work in India. Others followed, including de Silva, Perera and Gunawardena, who escaped to Madras on fishing boats after the legendary jail break of 7 April 1942; they were later recaptured and returned to Ceylon. Samarakkody remained behind, working underground. He was rearrested and sentenced, along with Perera and Gunawardena, to six months’ rigorous imprisonment in 1944.
Alongside their Indian comrades, the exiled LSSP cadres worked to unify a number of isolated Trotskyist circles into a pan-Indian organisation. The Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India (BLPI) was formally constituted in May 1942, with functioning groups in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh), and the LSSP as its Ceylonese unit. The Draft Programme of the BLPI (which was not formally ratified until 1944) argued for revolutionary defeatism against all the imperialist combatants in World War II while calling for unconditional military defence of the Soviet degenerated workers state. (The draft programme appears as an appendix in Ervin’s book; sections of the programme were initially published in the SWP’s Fourth International, March, April and October 1942.) It gave concrete expression to the Trotskyist perspective of permanent revolution, describing Congress as “the classic party of the Indian capitalist class” and comparing it to “the Kuomintang, which led the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 to its betrayal and defeat.” Noting that the CSP and other petty-bourgeois formations (M.N. Roy’s Radical Democratic Party and the Forward Bloc of radical-nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose) within or under the influence of Congress “have repeatedly lent themselves to be used by the bourgeoisie as a defensive colouration before the masses,” the BLPI stressed:
“The leadership of the peasantry in the coming petty bourgeois democratic agrarian revolution that is immediately posed can therefore come only from the industrial proletariat.... The revolutionary alliance between the proletariat and peasantry can mean only proletarian leadership of the peasant struggle and, in case of revolutionary victory, the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship with the support of the peasantry.”
—Draft Programme of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party
of India (Colombo: LSSP(R) pamphlet, 1970)
Within months of its formation, the BLPI had the opportunity to intervene with this programme in a mass struggle. On 9 August 1942, the morning after Gandhi proclaimed before a huge crowd in Bombay the call for a non-violent mass campaign to force the British to “quit India,” he and the rest of the top Congress leaders were rounded up and imprisoned. The arrests provoked an immediate upheaval, which spread rapidly. The Communist Party (CPI) and the Royists, backing British imperialism in its “war against fascism,” opposed the “Quit India” movement outright, while Bose lined up with Germany and Japan. The Trotskyists threw their meagre forces into the struggle to bring the proletariat to the fore in the fight for independence and socialist revolution (see “The ‘Quit India’ Movement 50 Years On: Stalinist Alliance with Churchill Betrayed Indian Revolution,” Workers Hammer Nos. 131 and 132, September/October and November/December 1992; reprinted in Workers Vanguard No. 970, 3 December 2010).
Beginning on 9 August, the BLPI issued a number of leaflets aimed at mobilising the workers on a class basis and warning against any reliance on the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois misleaders. With Gandhi & Co. in prison, the Congress Socialists dissolved themselves as a distinct current in order to become the leadership of Congress. The CSP looked to the peasants and urban petty bourgeoisie to engage in guerrillaist clashes with the British forces, urging the workers to simply leave the factories and return to their home villages. As a 1944 BLPI document put it, the CSP’s role in the August struggle “proved completely, in action it was simply unable to outstep the bounds of bourgeois ‘pressure politics’ perspectives, and that, though ‘socialist’ by label, it was merely Congress in fact” (“The Present Political Situation in India,” 4 August 1944, reprinted in Fourth International, October 1944).
The difficult war years in India were the heroic days of the Ceylonese Trotskyists. Many BLPI militants were arrested, including in July 1943 as a result of Stalinist tip-offs. Yet the small BLPI provided a revolutionary working-class pole in the struggles against British imperialism. Though driven underground, the Trotskyists managed to publish a high-grade theoretical journal, Permanent Revolution, whose first issue in January 1943 reprinted Trotsky’s July 1939 “An Open Letter to the Workers of India” (also published as “India Faced With Imperialist War”). The BLPI established a base among sections of the proletariat, winning significant influence in some militant unions in Madras and elsewhere.
The 1942 Split and the Struggle
The formation of the BLPI provoked a split among the Ceylonese Trotskyists between a self-styled “Workers Opposition” under Gunawardena and Perera and the Bolshevik-Leninist faction of more junior leaders such as Doric de Souza and Samarakkody. The split was formalised in 1945 with the expulsion of Gunawardena and Perera. Though the dispute was couched in terms of “tactics,” it was clearly analogous to the 1903 split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Samarakkody later observed: “It was the attempt on the part of the Marxist wing to re-organise the party programmatically and organisationally on Bolshevik lines that led to opposition from the Philip Gunawardena/N.M. Perera reformist wing and to the split of 1942” (“The Struggle for Trotskyism in Ceylon”).
Gunawardena and Perera revolted at the prospect of a hard, disciplined, internationalist organisation. As Ervin put it in his earlier article on the BLPI, “The opportunist wing of the old LSSP rebelled, leading to a de facto split.... At bottom, it was a fight over what kind of party would lead the Indian struggle for liberation—proletarian revolutionary or petit-bourgeois radical?” (Revolutionary History, Winter 1988-89). The Workers Opposition railed against allegedly sectarian, petty-bourgeois intellectuals out to “transform the party from a living and growing entity with its deep roots in the masses into a narrow conspiratorial sect” (quoted in “Trotskyism in India, 1942-48”). In effect, Gunawardena sought to return the LSSP to the days when it looked something like the CSP, with a vaguely socialist and anti-imperialist programme and a politically uneducated “mass” membership—and himself calling the shots. It’s notable that on at least two occasions, Gunawardena resorted to physical violence or scurrilous, unsupported cop-baiting against his opponents inside the party, directed in particular at Doric de Souza, a key underground organiser of the Bolshevik-Leninists.
In India, Gunawardena et al. wanted the Trotskyists to enter the petty-bourgeois radical Congress Socialist Party. So long as the proletarian vanguard strictly maintained its programmatic independence from the bourgeois nationalists, work by a small nucleus of Leninist revolutionaries inside a mass bourgeois-nationalist formation in a colonial or semicolonial country in certain circumstances was not ruled out in principle. Trotsky adamantly opposed the liquidationist entry of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) into the Guomindang (GMD) beginning in 1923, which subordinated the proletarian vanguard to the bourgeois nationalists. But he did not in principle reject the CCP’s initial partial entry into the GMD in 1922, as he made clear in a 1 November 1937 letter to Harold Isaacs criticising a passage in Isaacs’ draft of The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1938):
“You invoke the fact that even if the Chinese [Communist Party] leaders opposed the entry they referred not to principles but to their ‘belief that the Kuomintang was defunct.’ This assertion is repeated twice or more. I find it incorrect in this case to oppose principles against the facts. In those times in the past when the bourgeois parties were capable of guiding toiling masses the duty of a revolutionary was to join them. Marx and Engels for instance joined the Democratic party in 1848 (correctly or not is a matter for concrete analysis). ‘The Kuomintang is not capable of leading revolutionary masses. It is from the revolutionary point of view a defunct party. That is why we are against the entry,’—such an argument could have a totally principled value.
“I can go further: the entering in itself in 1922 was not a crime, possibly not even a mistake, especially in the south, under the assumption that the Kuomintang at this time had a number of workers and the young Communist party was weak and composed almost entirely of intellectuals. (This is true for 1922?) In this case the entry would have been an episodic step to independency [sic], analogous to a certain degree to your entering the [U.S.] Socialist Party. The question is what was their purpose in entering and what was their subsequent policy?”
—Trotsky Papers Cataloging Records (MS Russ 13.11), Houghton Library, Harvard University (No. 8558)
The BLPI took a clear stand for the class independence of the proletariat from all wings of the Congress bourgeoisie, rejecting the CSP’s call for mass affiliation of the trade unions and kisan sabhas (peasant leagues) to Congress. The 1942 BLPI programme asserted: “To regard the Congress as a ‘National United Front,’ or to entertain any illusions whether of capturing the Congress from the bourgeoisie or of successfully exposing its bourgeois leadership while remaining loyal to the Congress, would be fatal to the independence of the proletarian movement” (Draft Programme). At the same time, the programme stated:
“This does not of course absolve Bolshevik-Leninists from the task of doing fraction work (of course, in all cases under strict party discipline) within the Congress, so long as there remain within their folds revolutionary and semi-revolutionary elements who may be won away from these organisations.”
But this purpose was at odds with what Gunawardena had in mind, which was certainly not a short-term entry aimed at winning potential revolutionaries in the CSP to Trotskyism. As indicated above, he had always been fascinated with the CSP as a “broad” socialist organisation nestled inside Congress. He saw the effort to forge a hard Trotskyist organisation in India in 1942 as the work of “revolutionary romantics,” as he was to put it later when the question of liquidation into the CSP was revisited (“Bolshevik-Leninists Should Enter Immediately the Socialist Party of India [CSP],” Internal Bulletin [LSSP] Vol. 1, No. 2, March 1947; quoted in Tomorrow Is Ours).
In 1943, Gunawardena and Perera argued that the BLPI should merge forces with the CSP as part of “a scheme to broker a broad regroupment of Congress Socialists and other nationalist parties which had played a prominent role in the ‘Quit India’ struggle,” as Ervin put it in one of his earlier articles (“Trotskyism in India, 1942-48”). Ervin continued: “Their opportunist proposal was couched in terms of ‘tactics,’ a ploy which these slick revisionists would repeat over the next several decades.”
Here, again, the later Ervin contradicts his earlier writings in order to rally to the defence of Gunawardena and Perera, falsely likening their opportunist proposal to the American Trotskyists’ entry into the Socialist Party in 1936-37. That entry was carried out with the aim of intersecting a layer of leftward-moving workers and youth and winning them to the fight for a revolutionary party, not of submerging the Trotskyists in an unprincipled left-nationalist lash-up in a capitalist party. In his book, Ervin sneeringly describes the Bolshevik-Leninists as “purists” for opposing Gunawardena’s opportunist manoeuvres with a pro-imperialist labour bureaucrat in Ceylon in 1945. He then claims:
“The BLPI directed biting propaganda at the Congress Socialists, pointing out their contradiction. The Socialists wanted struggle, but refused to break with the ‘bourgeois’ Congress. But these barbs, fired from afar, carried little sting. If the Trotskyists had been working in the Congress Socialist Party, as Philip Gunawardena had urged all along, they might have been able to influence a chunk of the Congress left.”
—Tomorrow Is Ours
To have dissolved the small and largely unjelled BLPI into the Congress/CSP would have led to the abortion of Indian Trotskyism. This became painfully evident in 1948 when, despite widespread initial opposition at the base, the BLPI did carry out a full-scale entry into J.P. Narayan’s Socialist Party, formed after the CSP finally left the Congress, which was now the ruling party of an independent India. Denied the right to form an organised internal opposition by the Socialist leaders, over the course of the next few years the Trotskyists were fully assimilated into Indian social democracy.
In fact, the CSP had long made it clear that it would not countenance organised opposition to Congress within its ranks. When the Stalinist CPI, having entered the CSP in 1936, began winning over significant numbers and entire CSP branches, they were subjected to an anti-Communist witchhunt and finally purged completely in 1940. One-time American Bukharinite Bertram Wolfe recalls how a CSP leader he knew, Yusuf Meherally, explained that he had ordered the purge of the CPI on the grounds that it “had constituted itself as a hostile conspiracy within our movement. They kept up a faction of their own, slandered our movement and its leaders” (quoted in Wolfe, Strange Communists I Have Known [London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1966]). Meherally recalled telling the CPI leaders: “You have proved unworthy of membership in the Congress Party and you have proved unworthy of the moral principles of Ghandhiji” (quoted in ibid.). It is willfully illusory to believe that the CSP leadership would have allowed a small Trotskyist entry faction to engage in a principled struggle based on revolutionary opposition to Congress, the CSP leadership and the Indian bourgeoisie.
Postwar Opportunism and Reunification
The end of the imperialist war saw most of the Ceylonese Trotskyists returning to the island. The Indian connection was steadily abandoned. Weakened by the departure of the Ceylonese cadre and pressured by the emergent Pabloite leadership in the International Secretariat of the Fourth International into a liquidationist entry, a Bombay-centred pro-entry faction ultimately won out and the BLPI collapsed into Narayan’s Socialist Party. The LSSP’s Short History argues that the organisational connection between the Ceylonese and Indian Trotskyists “ceased to have any meaning” after the transfer of power in India in 1947 and Ceylon in 1948. This is a flagrant denial of the necessary interrelation of socialist revolution in India and Ceylon.
The political basis of the split between the Bolshevik-Leninists and the Gunawardena/Perera reformist wing was not clarified and sharpened. As early as late 1946 there was an abortive attempt at reunification, and in 1950 an unprincipled merger of the Bolshevik-Leninists, by then called the Bolshevik Samasamaja Party (BSP), and LSSP was effected, with the blessing of Pablo & Co. Early in our contact with Samarakkody we raised the question: “What would seem to require explanation in the 1950 Ceylonese reunification is the internal incapacity of the left Trotskyists to resist it in favor of their previously overtly principled course” (Letter to Samarakkody, 27 October 1973, reprinted in iSt International Discussion Bulletin No. 3, May 1974). We further observed that from then on, the LSSP, “operating within the limitations of a merely national perspective and with a focus on the parliamentary arena,” was on a downhill slide from tacit reformism to increasingly overt class collaboration, culminating in the 1964 popular-front government.
Certainly, the BSP was itself affected by parliamentarism, and the opportunity for these leftists to become MPs must have played a part in their incorporation back into the LSSP. Samarakkody himself was elected to parliament in 1952. A pattern was set in the LSSP whereby the leftists could say whatever they wanted while the right wing, centred on the parliamentary leaders, determined policy at every crucial juncture. The LSSP lefts, appearing as revolutionaries before the masses, had real value to the reformists in this division of labour. But in the end, the lefts could only act as a pressure group on the rightist leadership core.
The postwar movement for independence took place in the context of a wave of working-class struggles between 1945 and 1947. The spectre of struggles by urban and plantation workers had the capitalists screaming about the “Indian menace” and the “Red Peril.” A series of strikes in 1946 won promises of concessions, but a general strike in May-June 1947 was violently suppressed. Though the United National Party (UNP) won the most seats in the 1947 elections, the LSSP (with ten seats) and the Bolshevik-Leninists (with five seats) did surprisingly well. Samarakkody was chosen to stand in Mirigama against UNP leader D.S. Senanayake, a “kinsman,” through his brother Siripala’s marriage into that notable landlord-capitalist family. In what was meant to be a Senanayake pocket borough, Samarakkody shook the prime minister-to-be by getting nearly 11,000 votes compared to 26,000-plus votes for Senanayake.
In his article in Spartacist, Samarakkody noted the highly indicative fact that LSSP leaders Perera and Gunawardena refused to join the Bolshevik-Leninists in 1946 in rejecting the Soulbury Constitution granted by Britain, which bequeathed formal independence while leaving intact key British institutions, such as the Trincomalee naval base and the monarchy, in the form of a British-appointed Governor-General. Certainly in hindsight the question of the Soulbury Constitution appears less significant than the vicious anti-working-class and anti-Tamil legislation which the government, with the support of Tamil bourgeois politicians, passed in the period immediately after independence. The great majority of the nearly one million Tamils of Indian origin, who made up the bulk of the plantation proletariat, were disenfranchised and deprived of citizenship. Thus, the largest and most powerful section of the working class, whose superexploitation allowed for the educational, medical and other welfarist measures implemented by the capitalists in those years, was made voteless and stateless. While LSSP and BSP MPs spoke eloquently in parliament against these measures as racist and anti-working-class, there is little to no evidence that they did much more.
The 1950 BSP-LSSP unification conference document said nothing about the plantation workers or the removal of their citizenship rights. Yet the merger with the Bolshevik-Leninists was too much for Gunawardena, who led a significant split in the direction of petty-bourgeois Sinhala populism. The following year, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike split from the UNP to form the bourgeois Sri Lanka Freedom Party, with its greater emphasis on Sinhala chauvinism and “anti-imperialist” rhetoric. Certainly as viewed through the eyes of the Tamil plantation workers, not to speak of principled Marxists, it was impossible to see Bandaranaike, notwithstanding his verbal radicalism, as a “lesser evil.” Yet the LSSP approached Bandaranaike for a no-contest agreement for the May 1952 elections. No protest against this was registered by Pablo’s International Secretariat, though from the standpoint of proletarian revolution this was already a crime.
Again in 1953-54 the Ceylonese Trotskyists were not well served by the international movement. The LSSP leadership initially rejected Pablo’s line in 1952 fleshing out the perspective of long-term entrism into the dominant Stalinist and social-democratic parties in West Europe. In a 23 February 1954 letter to Leslie Goonewardene, founding American Trotskyist James P. Cannon wrote: “The LSSP—more than any other party, I venture to say—requires an international leadership which will be a source of strength and support to its Trotskyist orthodoxy” (reprinted in SWP Education for Socialists, “Towards a History of the Fourth International, Part 3: International Committee Documents 1951-1954,” Vol. 4). But when Cannon and the SWP majority had belatedly declared war on Pablo’s revisionism in 1953, they did not carry out a hard fight throughout the International. Rather, the International Committee led by Cannon boycotted the Fourth World Congress organised by the Pabloites. As a result, the wavering LSSP was not polarised and was instead allowed to drift with Pablo. We later observed, “Had a hard principled anti-revisionist fight been waged in the Ceylon section in 1953, a hard revolutionary organization with an independent claim to Trotskyist continuity might have been created then, preventing the association of the name of Trotskyism with the fundamental betrayal of the LSSP” (“Genesis of Pabloism,” Spartacist No. 21, Fall 1972).
Pablo’s liquidationist perspectives found resonance in the LSSP and encouraged a grouping which was to split away with a sizable minority of the membership, eventually coming to rest either in the Communist Party, Gunawardena’s increasingly communalist group or the SLFP itself. This tendency wanted a “Democratic Government which would have meant, at its lowest level, a Bandaranaike government, and at its highest level, a Government by a Sama Samaja majority” (quoted in “The Struggle for Trotskyism in Ceylon”). Samarakkody further noted, “In fact, all the basic questions of Trotskyism, the program, the application of the theory of the permanent revolution, the character of the Ceylon revolution, the role of the ‘national’ bourgeoisie, questions of strategy and tactics, the Leninist concept of the party, were the issues that were involved in this factional struggle that burst into the open.”
And just as the factional struggle was bursting into the open, events in Ceylon provided clear evidence that the LSSP leadership was incapable of leading a revolutionary upsurge in the direction of a proletarian struggle for power. With the end of the economic boom precipitated by the outbreak of the Korean War (which had led to a sharp increase in world market prices of rubber and other raw materials), the UNP launched new attacks on the working masses—jacking up prices and cutting the rice ration subsidy. The LSSP called a one-day stoppage, the 12 August 1953 hartal (general strike). The strike was greeted with an outpouring of popular support from all ethnic groups, including workers on plantations where LSSP unions remained active. Colombo was shut down, and road and rail transport was halted throughout the South and West; in the town of Moratuwa, near Colombo, women workers halted trains by waving red flags. The Cabinet was forced to hold meetings aboard a British warship, the HMS Newfoundland.
But the LSSP was utterly unprepared for anything but a day of extra-parliamentary pressure. Recognising this, the government rallied and struck back, crushing the ill-organised, fragmented pockets of resistance. Nine people were killed, and though the prime minister was eventually compelled to resign, capitalist rule was restabilised.
The demonstrated incapacity of the LSSP helped lay the basis for the SLFP’s populist, “anti-imperialist” chauvinism to triumph in the 1956 elections and paved the way for anti-Tamil pogroms in 1958. Later, Samarakkody enumerated some powerful lessons of the hartal as vindicating the programme of permanent revolution:
“1. ...The Hartal showed that, given a revolutionary leadership, the masses could soon shed their parliamentary illusions and enter the road of mass struggle leading to the revolution itself.
“2. The masses did not divide the Ceylon revolution into two stages, (a) an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal stage and (b) an anti-capitalist stage....
“4. The alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry, which is basic to the Ceylon revolution, was achieved in action. The struggle showed that it was not necessary for the proletariat to form a political alliance with a bourgeois or petty-bourgeois party in order to win the peasantry.”
—“The Struggle for Trotskyism in Ceylon”
The SLFP and “Sinhala Only”
But the leadership of the LSSP was on another trajectory. In the 1950s, the focus of Sinhalese chauvinism shifted decisively to the Tamils. (The Malayalis had mostly returned to India in the 1940s and the migration of many Burghers made them an increasingly less plausible bogeyman.) In 1955 the SLFP embraced the policy that Sinhalese be the sole official language (as had Gunawardena the year before). Though this was sometimes couched in egalitarian terms directed against the English-speaking elite, the real target of “Sinhala only” was the Tamils. That same year the LSSP cemented a no-contest agreement with the SLFP. While formally maintaining that the SLFP was a bourgeois party, the LSSP put emphasis on the SLFP’s supposedly “progressive” aspects and on the need to defeat the UNP. When the SLFP-led People’s United Front (MEP), which included the Gunawardena group, won a clear majority, the LSSP, now the main opposition party, offered to engage in “responsive cooperation” with the new government.
Several factors intervened to check the full flowering of this popular-frontist capitulation. In contradiction to its abject posture toward Bandaranaike, the LSSP continued to uphold a policy of parity of status for the Sinhala and Tamil languages; in 1955-56, its public meetings were attacked by communalist thugs. One of the SLFP’s first acts was to introduce a Sinhala Only Act. The LSSP opposed this act, but more from the standpoint of some vague anti-imperialist unity—a “common bond of Ceylonese consciousness,” as Leslie Goonewardene put it in 1960 (A Short History of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party)—than that of a class-based tribune of the people. Anxious about its declining influence in the petty-bourgeois Sinhalese electorate, the LSSP was hardly oriented to take advantage of the openings posed by the government’s virulently anti-Tamil policies. While the LSSP’s Lanka Estate Workers Union grew considerably, when the CP embraced “Sinhala only” in 1960, its disillusioned Tamil supporters turned not to the LSSP but to Tamil communal and nationalist politics.
As well, the organised working class rapidly became disillusioned with the new “socialist” government, and a wave of strikes broke out. The LSSP abandoned its cooperation with the government, and Bandaranaike whipped up communalist hysteria, culminating in the May 1958 anti-Tamil riots and a ten-month state of emergency under the Public Security Act. With parliament shut down, the LSSP as a whole did little. Indicatively, it confined its main protest to the Public Security Act to a parliamentary gesture in February 1959, when nine LSSP MPs (including Samarakkody) were forcibly removed by the police from the chambers of parliament.
In 1957, Samarakkody and several other Central Committee members came together in opposition to the policy of “responsive cooperation,” arguing:
“Whatever was the intention of the party, in the eyes of the masses, the key to the understanding of the fundamental position of the party in relation to the government was the offer of co-operation (responsive) by the party. This offer of co-operation to the capitalist government was wrong. The party could have and should have offered support to the progressive measures of the government while stating categorically that the MEP government was a capitalist government.”
—quoted in “The Struggle for Trotskyism in Ceylon”
The opposition grouping also argued:
“The aim of the party in relation to the MEP government is revolutionary overthrow of the government, i.e. by the method of the mass uprising. The masses are not ready now (today) for the overthrow of the government. But in view of the failure of the government to solve the pressing problems of the people, in view of the ever increasing dissension in the MEP, and the demoralisation of its own ranks, in view of the growing militancy of the working class, the situation can change very rapidly, and at any moment from now, the masses could well raise the slogan ‘Down with the MEP government.’ As a bridge between their present consciousness and the stage when they will be ready for the call for the overthrow of the Government, the party will adopt as a central agitational slogan ‘We do not want the capitalist MEP government, we want a workers and peasants government’.”
—quoted in ibid.
Samarakkody assessed the 1957 opposition as follows: “Undoubtedly this group failed to come to grips with the roots of reformism in the party. It only focused attention on some aspects of party policy. Nevertheless, the orientation of this group gave promise of possibilities for the growth of a real revolutionary tendency” (ibid.).
Following Bandaranaike’s assassination in September 1959 by a disgruntled ultra-chauvinist Buddhist monk who had earlier supported the SLFP regime, the LSSP had high hopes of riding to parliamentary power. But the LSSP stagnated at ten seats in the March 1960 elections, and the SLFP failed to secure a majority. Two months later, the reformist wing led by Perera finally won the LSSP to a coalition with the SLFP, and a no-contest pact was signed. The LSSP stopped talking of parity for the Tamil language. As it was, Bandaranaike’s widow, Sirimavo (popularly known as Mrs. B), won an outright victory in a second election, in July 1960, and had no need for coalition partners. The LSSP voted for the Throne Speech, the governing party’s principal policy address to parliament, and outlined its policy as support “so long as the Government in line with its socialist professions, subserves the needs of the mass movement for socialism” (A Short History of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party). Those left MPs, including Samarakkody, who voted against the Throne Speech were censured by the LSSP.
In response to this overt support to a bourgeois government, the Pabloite International Secretariat delivered nothing more than a mild public rebuke to the LSSP over the no-contest agreement and the vote for the Throne Speech. The American SWP, then still affiliated to the International Committee, stated in a letter to the LSSP that the “policy of working for the creation of an SLFP government appears to us to be completely at variance with the course of independent working class political action” and was “a form of ‘popular frontism’” (Letter by Tom Kerry to LSSP, 17 May 1960). When the SWP declined to publicly denounce this betrayal, James Robertson, who was to be a co-founder of the Revolutionary Tendency, strenuously objected to the party’s public silence in an 8 August letter to the SWP Political Committee (see “No to Public Silence on LSSP Betrayal,” page 24). Healy, notwithstanding his later song and dance about opposing the LSSP betrayal, urged the SWP to “proceed with caution—as you have in the past so rightly insisted” (Letter to Joe Hansen, 14 August 1960). Finally, months after the fact, the SWP’s Militant (3 October 1960) carried a limp pro forma statement chastising the LSSP for its support to the SLFP.
Popular Front Consummated
It is important to understand the backdrop to the formation of a coalition government in 1964. In 1961 and 1962, mass struggles erupted among the Tamil minority, led by the bourgeois Federal Party, in defence of their language and democratic rights. The SLFP government sent in the army to crush the protests. While Samarakkody personally joined with Tamil MPs in condemning the army’s actions, his party did nothing. The abandonment of any defence of minority rights was mirrored in the collapse of the LSSP’s Tamil union support on the plantations and elsewhere.
New waves of workers strikes also broke out. The bridge between the extraparliamentary workers struggle and the safe channels of parliament was the United Left Front (ULF) with the Communist Party and Gunawardena’s group (which now called itself the MEP), launched by the LSSP in 1963 and enthusiastically promoted by the Pabloite International Secretariat. The ULF was clearly a Sinhala-chauvinist popular front. Whatever question might have existed about the class character of Gunawardena’s group when he split in 1950, the MEP was now a rabidly communalist petty-bourgeois party; Gunawardena insisted that no Tamil organisations be invited to a joint LSSP-CP-MEP May Day rally in 1963. Samarakkody and a minority on the LSSP CC opposed the ULF, correctly noting that it was but the preparatory step to coalition with the SLFP. But wider reservations in the party about a coalition were steadily worn down.
Faced with defections and army coup attempts, Tamil mobilisations and now mass working-class struggle, Mrs. B desperately needed allies. As 40,000 rallied in Colombo on 21 March 1964, the bourgeois press was already reporting talks between Perera and the SLFP. At a special LSSP conference on 6-7 June, the right wing under Perera got a big majority for joining the SLFP in government. A minority resolution presented by 14 CC members stated:
“To agree to accept office in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s Government, either separately or in association with the other parties in the United Left Front would be to agree to join hands with the SLFP Government in staving off the rising tide of working class and mass discontent against it, and to seek to provide working class collaboration with its policy of maintaining capitalism in Ceylon within the capitalist constitutional framework.
“The entry of the LSSP leaders into the SLFP government will result in open class collaboration, disorientation of the masses, the division of the working class and the abandonment of the struggle-perspective, which will lead to the disruption of the working class movement and the elimination of the independent revolutionary axis of the Left. In the result, the forces of capitalist reaction, far from being weakened or thwarted, will be ultimately strengthened.”
—reprinted in (Healyite) Fourth International,
Defeated, most of the 159 delegates who opposed the coalition left to form the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Revolutionary), declaring that the LSSP decision was “a complete violation of the basic principles of Trotskyism” (Education for Socialists, “Towards a History of the Fourth International, Part 6: Revolutionary Marxism vs. Class Collaboration in Sri Lanka”).
The LSSP(R), which now replaced the LSSP as the USec’s Ceylonese section, retained two MPs, Samarakkody and Meryl Fernando. Beset by further defections, the coalition did not have a parliamentary majority. On 3 December 1964 it was defeated by one vote on an amendment to the Throne Speech by an independent rightist (and one-time LSSP member), W. Dahanayake, which asserted that “the people have no confidence in the government as it had failed to solve the problems of the people, such as employment, high cost of living and housing” (quoted in T. Perera, Revolutionary Trails—Edmund Samarakkody: A Political Profile [Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 2006]). Samarakkody and Fernando voted for the amendment. In a statement issued by Samarakkody, the LSSP(R) declared that it “has no tears to shed whatsoever for the Government” (reprinted in M. Banda, Ceylon: The Logic of Coalition Politics).
The LSSP(R) was not a homogeneous group. A pro-coalition tendency led by V. Karalasingham soon headed back into the LSSP. Moreover, it quickly became evident that Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) boss Bala Tampoe was intent on making the LSSP(R) the adjunct of his grossly opportunistic trade-union activities. Tampoe later boasted: “Even though I was a member of the LSSP I never allowed the LSSP to control the Mercantile Union. I am proud that I have steered the Union from political entanglements” (Colombo Sunday Times, 22 October 1995). The LSSP(R) also contained supporters of the British Healy group, who engaged in unprincipled manoeuvres with both Karalasingham and Tampoe until the Healyites departed to form their own organisation.
Samarakkody’s main fight was with Tampoe. Having taken over the CMU from A.E. Goonesinha in 1948, Tampoe was, despite various “democratic” trappings, ensconced as head of the union for life, prompting the popular joke that it was easier to change the constitution of the country than that of the CMU. Tampoe’s conduct, opposing joint action with other unions and even hobnobbing with the class enemy and visiting imperialist officials during important class battles, reached scandalous proportions. Repulsed by this, Samarakkody led a split in 1968. His appeal to the United Secretariat to be recognised as its official section was turned down. Subsequently, we collaborated with Samarakkody’s RWP in publicising Tampoe’s impermissible activities (see “The Case of Bala Tampoe” and “USec Covers Up Tampoe Scandal,” Spartacist Nos. 21 and 22, Fall 1972 and Winter 1973-74).
Samarakkody went about as far left as he could within the confines of the United Secretariat. Somewhat attracted to SWP spokesman Joseph Hansen’s seemingly orthodox criticisms of the USec majority’s then-guerrillaist line, Samarakkody stated in a document for the 1969 USec World Congress: “It is time for the whole of the International to consider whether our tactics during the last three decades has taken us along a strategy that is alien to our movement” (“Strategy and Tactics of Our Movement in the Backward Countries” [undated]). After being cast out of the USec, Samarakkody’s critical examination went further:
“During the first two years the revolutionary tendency had the task of drawing up a proper balance sheet of the experience of the LSSP and the LSSP(R) and to cleanse itself of the hangovers of Pabloism, which substituted empiricism and pragmatism for dialectical materialism and which abandoned the task of building the revolutionary party to the participation and ‘integration’ in the so-called living movement of the masses, leading the Pabloites to parliamentarism and syndicalism. The Revolutionary Workers Party cannot but reject the politics of both wings of the United Secretariat—the ultra-left opportunist mixture of Mandel, Livio [Maitan], [Pierre] Frank, as well as the opportunist group of Hansen-Novack.”
—“The Struggle for Trotskyism in Ceylon”
Discussions with Samarakkody
Samarakkody first wrote to us in 1971. For us this was a significant development. Ceylon had considerable importance in the history of the Trotskyist movement and as a staging area for revolution throughout the Indian subcontinent. Samarakkody and Fernando were old, tested cadres with a track record. Cadres represent the accumulated capital of long experience, and Trotsky himself, for example, had spent long years trying to win over the likes of Henk Sneevliet, a veteran of the Communist movement, in the struggle for the Fourth International. In another sense, Samarakkody was important to us in the same way as were Healy, Lambert and the Bolivian Guillermo Lora. We kept probing for elements in and around the United Secretariat and other ostensibly Trotskyist formations, understanding that local groupings might not be firmly bound to Pabloite centrism or Hansen’s reformism. This necessary testing suggested that all such wings, splinters and fragments claiming the mantle of the Fourth International were finished as revolutionary forces, that it was necessary to build anew including by regrouping revolutionary cadres from these organisations through a process of splits and fusions.
Moreover, we were conscious of the mistake that Cannon and the American SWP had made after Trotsky’s death of not accepting the challenge of international leadership and instead waiting for someone else to do it. Consequently, we set out to see if there was a principled basis for us to join together with the RWP in the struggle to reforge the Fourth International. This necessarily involved an attempt to determine to what extent those of the old Ceylonese Trotskyists who had split over the 1964 betrayal had actually succeeded in transcending the “old,” “good” LSSP. Discussions also developed, among other questions, over our propaganda group perspective, the popular front and the national question.
We had learned through hard experience that one could not evaluate a group from a distance simply on the basis of its written propaganda. While the Healyites, for example, produced a number of excellent documents in the late 1950s and early ’60s, we learned through our contact with them that behind these fine words there lurked a wretched history of political banditry and thuggery. Samarakkody’s 1964 vote against the popular front constituted a verifiable demonstration of revolutionary principle. But it was only through painfully expensive visits to Sri Lanka—perhaps half a dozen in as many years—that any real sense was gained of the perspectives and work of the RWP.
An initial focus of our differences on the national question was the Near East. The RWP disagreed with our position of revolutionary defeatism in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, maintaining that Israel was simply an imperialist outpost and thus it was necessary to extend military support to the Arab bourgeois states. The RWP also rejected our contention that in the case of geographically interpenetrated peoples—as in Israel-Palestine and Cyprus—the realization of self-determination for one people could, under capitalism, only come at the expense of the democratic rights of the other. Thus, in a 1975 letter Samarakkody asserted that “the possibility, or probability, of the oppression of the Turkish Cypriot minority, will not deter revolutionary Marxists in supporting the just struggle of the Cypriot people for complete independence” (“National Question: RWP-SL/U.S. Differences,” 31 October 1975, reprinted in iSt International Discussion Bulletin No. 7, March 1977). The problem with this is that there is no single “Cypriot people,” as was demonstrated with the compacting of two mutually hostile statelets under Turkish and Greek suzerainty, respectively, involving mass population transfers. Such conflicting national interests in the case of interpenetrated peoples can only be equitably resolved within the framework of proletarian state power.
The crucial point of difference between us and the RWP was the popular front. In the 1970 elections, the RWP (then the Revolutionary Samasamaja Party) had advocated support to the LSSP or CP, which were part of the SLFP-led popular front, in those constituencies where their opponents were candidates of capitalist parties:
“As a first step in the direction of ending Coalition politics and all form of class collaboration, and for the re-groupment of the working-class under its own independent class banner, in the perspective of the anti-capitalist struggle, the Revolutionary Samasamaja Party calls for support of the candidates of working-class parties only where they are pitted against the candidates of capitalist parties.” [emphasis in original]
—“Revolutionary Samasamaja Party and
the General Elections,” May 1970
Our position is that there is no basis for critical electoral support to a bourgeois workers party in a popular front, since any exploitable contradiction between the reformists’ political subordination to capitalism and their claim (implicit or explicit) to represent the interests of the working class is suppressed when they are part of a bourgeois coalition. The popular front violates the principle of proletarian class independence from the bourgeoisie. The history of the workers movement on the island speaks volumes to what is wrong with any form of support to the popular front.
In 1974, a delegation from the RWP was able to visit Canada for extensive discussion with the international Spartacist tendency. There we learned that Samarakkody had lately repudiated the 1964 vote which brought down the popular front. The discussions on this question, then and later, were clouded by tactical questions. The vote for the rightist amendment had been awkward and inept, the comrades falling into a UNP manoeuvre. Nonetheless it was principled, obligatory, courageous and honourable. Sooner rather than later, Samarakkody and Fernando would again have faced the question of voting to bring the government down, likely with their two votes being the decisive ones. Behind all the RWP’s talk of a “tactical mistake” lay the capitulatory conclusion that the preservation of the coalition was more important than Marxist principle. The basis of our respect for Samarakkody was the 1964 vote, and now he deplored it. In the words of one comrade: “He said he was sorry, we thought he was great (before we knew he was sorry).”
The LSSP reaped only disillusion and disaffection from its support for coalitionism, its working-class base delivered up to Sinhala chauvinism. Soon after joining the coalition, the LSSP backed the Shastri-Sirimavo pact signed by Mrs. B and Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, which called for deporting more than half a million Tamils to India. In January 1966, the LSSP, in league with the CP, organised a communalist campaign to protest against limited concessions proposed by the UNP government on Tamil language rights. The 1970 election campaign by the SLFP-LSSP-CP coalition reached new heights of anti-Tamil chauvinism. LSSPer Colvin R. de Silva’s crowning triumph is to bear responsibility as Minister for Constitutional Affairs for the 1972 constitution that enshrined “Sinhala only” and abrogated previous formal safeguards for Lanka’s minorities.
From the Velona Mills strike of young women workers in Moratuwa led by the LSSP(R) in July 1964 through the strike waves of the next six years, the LSSP stood with the communalist bourgeois coalition against workers struggles. What emerged as a reaction to coalitionism was the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which began as a rural-based, radical leftist movement inspired by Che Guevara and the revolutionary Vietnamese struggle against U.S. imperialism and its local puppets. Responding to one Ceylonese correspondent in 1972, we noted:
“The main point of our concern with the youth uprising impinges on our principal historical criticism of the Ceylonese Trotskyist movement—that its deep strain of petty-bourgeois impulse found expression in a relatively privileged Ceylonese nationalism rather than in struggle to win the proletariat in Ceylon (and especially the Tamil plantation workers) as a staging area for proletarian revolution on the Indian subcontinent as a whole.”
—quoted in Letter to Samarakkody, 27 October 1973, reprinted in iSt International Discussion Bulletin
No. 3, May 1974
In the late 1960s, the JVP was the organisation that subjectively revolutionary youth joined in opposition to the parliamentary shell game and coalition betrayals. JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera presented himself as “a modern Bolshevik.” The JVP’s base included many educated rural youth who spoke only Sinhalese and thus faced bleak prospects in the semicolonial economy. A JVP-led uprising in early 1971 was drowned in blood by the SLFP-LSSP-CP coalition government, which slaughtered thousands of young militants. In the aftermath, the JVP’s growing emphasis on Sri Lanka’s “liberation” from the “Indian threat” (as well as its petty-bourgeois, peasant-based strategy) ultimately transformed it into a reactionary communalist organisation intent on destroying the Tamil people. This was the product, in no small part, of the “Sinhala only” education policies pushed by the SLFP and now embraced by the LSSP.
One thing that attracted us to Samarakkody and the RWP was the principled stand they took on the 1971 uprising. While the LSSP and CP coalitionists tried to cover the tracks of their butchery by howling about the JVP being CIA reactionaries, Samarakkody acted as a defence lawyer for imprisoned JVPers while publicly criticising the JVP’s politics:
“In these circumstances, there was no question of the party supporting this struggle. The party did not and could not have supported this struggle nor do anything, nor could have done anything by way of assisting to promote or continue this armed struggle.
“But as this struggle was between the oppressed youth on the one side and the forces of capitalism on the other, the side of revolutionary Marxists is the side of the fighting youth, meaning thereby, that they should defend the fighting youth against the actions of the capitalist state. Concretely, this meant that revolutionary Marxists should oppose and fight the government in its attempt to kill, torture, imprison and harass the fighting youth, their supporters or relatives.”
—“Revolutionary Samasamaja Party
& the Armed Struggle,” 1971
The JVP grew on the basis of the failure of working-class leadership, and despite Samarakkody’s principled role in 1971, it is indicative of a preoccupation with the parliamentary coalition milieu that the RWP was never able to attract any militants from among these radicalised youth. Even when fissures later opened up between the Sinhala-chauvinist leadership of Wijeweera and more leftist-inclined elements of the JVP prepared to acknowledge Tamil rights, the RWP ignored our suggestions to have some orientation to these youth.
Emergence of Spartacist League/Lanka
Given the impasse reached in 1974, we were somewhat surprised when, in April 1979, we received a proposal for fusion from the RWP. A special conference of the RWP in February 1979 had voted for this perspective. The impetus clearly came from younger, active elements in the RWP’s Marxist Youth, who wished to break out of stagnancy. We did not know then that the historic leaders of the RWP, Samarakkody and Fernando, were opposed to the fusion perspective. In our reply to the RWP, we wrote:
“As with all sections and candidates for fusion we would need to have a mutual sense of assurance—in a programmatically definable way—that the Ceylonese comrades seek proletarian revolution in Ceylon and in South Asia. If these two considerations exist—the determination to act in concert internationally and the programmatically expressed appetite to seek proletarian revolution—then there is a basis for a valid fusion.”
—quoted in “Toward the International Trotskyist League!” Spartacist (English edition) No. 27-28, Winter 1979-80
Leftists, especially ostensible Trotskyists, in Lanka are attuned to seeking an international connection to enhance their authority, and Samarakkody certainly liked to get off the island, be it on MPs’ junkets to the USSR and Egypt or for international gatherings of ostensible Trotskyists. However, we were not interested in a ceremonial or federated “international” but rather an authentically Leninist, democratic-centralist international party. We gave the RWP access to our internal discussion bulletins, but the RWP never opened up its internal life to us.
Understanding that a fusion would be of incalculable value, we sent an authoritative delegation to Sri Lanka. A unification agreement was signed that noted, despite amendments by the RWP to water down the key formulations, the political obstacles to a valid unification:
“Politically and as an extreme characterisation the RWP could see elements of sectarian ultra-leftism in the iSt, centering upon at best indifference to national struggles of the oppressed, and willful ineffectuality in approaching the masses and in party building. The iSt for its part could perceive, as an extreme characterisation, the RWP as partaking at least in part of a centrism which tails petty-bourgeois nationalism and gives critical support to the worst aspects of revisionism and reformism, while in its own propaganda is largely unable to transcend mere democratic demands.”
—quoted in ibid.
The draft document for our 1979 international conference described the unification as an important opportunity for the extension of the international Spartacist tendency, but a difficult one, especially given the magnitude of the outstanding political differences, the geographical distance and the divergent cultural and living standards. In line with their prevalent notion that the leadership is anointed and eternal, the RWP sent a delegation to the conference consisting of Samarakkody, Fernando and Tulsiri Andrade, another leader who had abstained on the fusion perspective. Hidden from us was the fact that the delegation did not include anyone from the pro-fusion majority, already a sign of bad faith.
At the conference the turning point was a panel discussion on the popular-front question. While the iSt speakers sought to draw on the international experience of Trotsky’s struggles and more recent examples, Samarakkody focused narrowly on Ceylon, more and more turning political differences into questions of personal credibility and the integrity of “Edmund.” Our minimum condition for the unification was that, in the context of international democratic-centralism, the 1964 vote would be defended and supported publicly. The panel discussion underlined that for our part there would be no diplomatic non-aggression pact, but Leninist political struggle for a common international line. The RWP leaders would not accept this.
But the delegation could hardly return to Sri Lanka and report that the unification had broken down over the popular-front question, since most of the pro-fusion majority of the RWP agreed with the iSt position. Instead Samarakkody found his pretext with the trial of Bill Logan, a former leader of our Australian and British sections, for crimes against communist morality and human decency (see ICL Pamphlet, The Logan Dossier). Samarakkody was a member of the trial body and agreed that Logan had had a fair trial and was a “monster” guilty of “a pattern of calculated personal and sexual manipulation.” But he sought to lay responsibility for Logan’s crimes at the feet of other leading comrades, who had been among his main victims, and argued that Logan should not be expelled because he had not acted out of “personal interests.”
Samarakkody’s lawyering for Logan provoked deep anger and disgust among the conference participants. As one comrade noted, the range of unappetising human desires is not exhausted by pecuniary gain or power: “Did Jack the Ripper kill to make money or become the Prime Minister?” Perhaps Samarakkody calculated that the question of sex would elicit a prudish revulsion in the context of the deep sexual repression in Lankan society. Certainly his stance connoted a disregard for the question of women’s oppression. Though women workers constitute a strategic component of the proletariat on the island, the RWP had no women members; one member of the RWP delegation had argued that since women were four or five times more difficult to recruit, it was better to concentrate on recruiting four or five men rather than one woman.
The next day the RWP delegates packed their bags and left, throwing away the opportunity to argue their positions before hundreds of Trotskyists. Significantly, the RWP delegates’ reports to their membership did not even mention the popular-front discussion, but rather consisted of a litany of supposed bureaucratic abuses, often laughable and generally more revealing of their state of mind than the iSt’s alleged bureaucratism. They were not purged, as they alleged, nor intimidated; they simply ran away. Samarakkody was never so concerned about decorous procedures when he was in parliament, but maybe that was all just a bunch of “old boys” play-acting. The experience at the 1979 conference proved Samarakkody & Co. to be used-up human material. Our prolonged fraternal experience was resolved in a decidedly negative way. But its clarification had political value.
Nor did the RWP delegation succeed in inoculating their members against the iSt. The fight continued within the RWP itself. Those comrades who upheld the 1964 vote and the fusion perspective formed the Bolshevik Faction. In 1981, the Bolshevik Faction fused with the iSt and formed the Spartacist League/Lanka. The 24 May 1981 fusion document was explicitly based on the lessons of the struggle against “the parochial and vacillating centrism” of the Samarakkody RWP leadership (see “Stepping Stone Toward South Asian Revolution: Spartacist League Formed in Sri Lanka,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 31-32, Summer 1981). A keystone of the SL/L’s programme was the recognition that a consistent, principled line on the Tamil question was integrally related to categorical opposition to the popular front in all its variants: “Coalition politics has meant not only subservience to the capitalists but also Sinhala chauvinism” (ibid.). This went hand in hand with the understanding that Ceylonese Trotskyism could be reforged only on the basis of a revolutionary perspective encompassing the Indian subcontinent:
“The revolutionary intentions of Sri Lankan militants will be proven by their practice on the Tamil question. Across the narrow Palk Straits live many millions more Tamils. The struggle to win Tamil comrades expresses the commitment to helping build a revolutionary party in India.”
Our comrades’ commitment to the struggle against anti-Tamil chauvinism was put to the test almost immediately. At the initiative of an SL/L supporter at Colombo University, student strikers there raised the demand for admission of Tamil freshmen, cutting against the grain of an islandwide practice barring Tamils from any university other than Jaffna University. This struggle was the first recent instance of Sinhalese students championing Tamil rights. Despite its tiny numbers, the SL/L published journals in both Sinhala and Tamil. And in the face of anti-Tamil terror in the North, the SL/L distinguished itself in raising its voice in protest.
Throughout the 1980s, other sections of the iSt, often uniquely among Western left groups, initiated or participated in protests around the world against escalating anti-Tamil terror in Sri Lanka. Our comrades were invited to address mass Tamil rallies in London’s Trafalgar Square, a measure of the authority accrued as a result of our principled stand in this increasingly nationalist milieu. In 1983, decades of Sinhala-chauvinist popular-frontism culminated in unprecedentedly murderous pogroms orchestrated by the UNP government of J.R. Jayawardene. These pogroms, aimed at eliminating the important Tamil merchant and business layer in Colombo, were a decisive step in destroying the economic interpenetration of the island’s peoples. Thousands were killed and upwards of 100,000 Tamils were forced to flee as refugees to the North or to India; in addition, as many as 200,000 “stateless” Tamil labourers were terrorised into fleeing from the hill country plantations. We recognised that this was a watershed in the island’s history, noting:
“While the rest of the left opposed Tamil self-determination, we were for that right but argued against exercising it, pointing out that economically and in other ways, it would be a catastrophe. Now this catastrophe has happened, national separation is a reality. Thus today we demand: ‘For the right to Tamil Eelam! For a Socialist Federation of Eelam and Lanka!’”
—“Protest Mass State Terror Against Lankan Tamils!” Workers Vanguard No. 361, 31 August 1984
However, in our desperate attempt to find a means to defend the Tamil people against further massacres, we also raised the unprincipled call: “Patriation of Tamils in Sinhala areas to the North under the protection of the Indian army” (see Workers Vanguard No. 336, 12 August 1983, and Spartacist [English edition] No. 35, Autumn 1983). While the articles in question explicitly warned against placing any confidence in the Indian bourgeois state of Indira Gandhi to defend the Tamils in Sri Lanka, in fact the slogan amounted to a statement of confidence in the Indian bourgeoisie and could also be read as a call for forced population transfers of the remaining Tamils in Colombo and elsewhere on the island. In the interest of maintaining our record of Marxist clarity and integrity, the recent Sixth ICL Conference voted to publicly repudiate the 1983 “patriation” slogan.
Another decisive aspect of the SL/L’s repudiation of the legacy of class collaboration and reformist betrayal on the island was its forthright stand in defence of women’s rights. As the 1981 fusion document stated:
“Recent events in Iran and Afghanistan have sharply demonstrated that in the underdeveloped countries of the East the woman question has particular significance. We must raise demands that address the special oppression of women and develop special methods for work among women, for once aroused the working women will provide many of the best fighters for communism, as they did for the Bolshevik Revolution in Soviet Central Asia. The Tamil women plantation workers and as yet unorganized women workers in Free Trade Zone industries like textiles are important sectors of the Ceylonese proletariat and must be won to our cause.”
—“Spartacist League Formed in Sri Lanka”
When strikes broke out among mainly Sinhalese women garment workers in 1984, the SL/L solidarised with the strikers and the iSt launched international fund-raising efforts to support their struggles. In the course of this work, the SL/L won a number of these militants to the revolutionary programme.
Escalating anti-Tamil terror and general repression against the left took its toll on our tiny organisation. In 1984, Vincent Thomas, editor of the SL/L press, was ordered to appear at the notorious fourth floor offices in Colombo of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) secret police, where his life was threatened. To his credit, Samarakkody assisted in the legal defence of our comrade. The SL/L and iSt were subsequently the target of a scurrilous anti-communist, terror-baiting assault in the reactionary Lankan press.
The 1983 pogroms, the nationalist Tamil insurgency and the intense state repression combined to cut short the possibility of public work on the island. The capacity to assist our small and vulnerable organisation in combating the enormous pressures weighing down on them, through international discussion and collaboration, was decisively undermined by the absence of a common language. Whereas Samarakkody’s first language was English, allowing for real discussion, this was not the case with the comrades who constituted the SL/L. Notwithstanding our efforts to bridge the language gap—with comrades in New York studying Sinhala and comrades in Lanka taking classes in English—our Lankan section was very much a victim of the “Sinhala only” policies pushed through by the popular front.
The Continuing Legacy of Popular-Frontism
With the popular front’s chauvinist treachery played out in full, why did Samarakkody renege on the 1964 vote? It is clear that he switched his position following the emergence within the LSSP of an oppositional tendency, which became the Nava [New] Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) in 1977. Here, it seemed, was an opportunity to revive the old LSSP, to once again be a respected member of the old crowd. One iSt comrade visiting Lanka in October 1975 reported that the RWP “seem to be quite happy with their prospects, especially since the LSSP being thrown out of government has opened LSSP supporters up to them” and that Samarakkody’s appetite to have a weekly paper “seemed too much a matter of replying to what N.M. Perera and Colvin de Silva had just said in parliament.”
In an obituary on Samarakkody in the British Workers Power, the late Al Richardson, then editor of Revolutionary History and a consummate Labour Party entrist, wrote:
“Karalasingham’s contention that they should have undertaken entry work within the old LSSP received full confirmation within a decade when a mass left did indeed split away from it to set up the NSSP led by Vasudeva Nanayakkara. But Edmund preferred to stand by his principles, alone if necessary.”
—Workers Power, February 1992
Contrary to Richardson and all the popular-front apologists, Samarakkody’s failing was that he did not make a sufficient break from that calamitous tradition.
Aside from its complicity in all the crimes of the popular front, the NSSP is a replica of many of the worst features of the old LSSP. It has been repeatedly involved in the never-ending popular-front line-ups, including with the SLFP. NSSP founder Nanayakkara was himself an LSSP MP from 1970 to 1977. In June 1990, the NSSP joined with the SLFP and LSSP in a six-party statement that supported the UNP government’s genocidal onslaught against the Tamils in the name of a fight against “the fascism of the LTTE [Tamil Tigers]” (quoted in Revolutionary Trails).
The NSSP and its offspring continue that treacherous tradition to this day. For a number of years, the NSSP was affiliated to the international tendency led by the late Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe. In the late 1980s, the United Socialist Party (USP) was formed as a putatively left split from the NSSP. The USP sided with Taaffe when he and Grant broke up a few years later, while the NSSP went on to join the USec. During the bloody SLFP government offensive against the Tamils in 2009, the USP built a popular-frontist “Platform for Freedom” with the right-wing UNP. As for the erstwhile Healyites in Lanka, now linked to David North’s World Socialist Web Site, their occasionally orthodox criticisms of the popular-frontism of the NSSP, USP, etc. are belied by their abject refusal to recognise the right of self-determination of the Tamil people.
Bolshevik Methods of Party Building
The conception of party building that Samarakkody carried with him from the LSSP was far removed from Leninism. Lenin explicitly rejected the argument that the differences between backward Russia and the advanced capitalist countries of West Europe rendered the Bolshevik experience inapplicable for these countries. But the lessons of Bolshevism were also patently applicable to countries like Sri Lanka, which have similar features of the combined and uneven development that marked prerevolutionary Russia:
“Russia achieved Marxism—the only correct revolutionary theory—through the agony she experienced in the course of half a century of unparalleled torment and sacrifice, of unparalleled revolutionary heroism, incredible energy, devoted searching, study, practical trial, disappointment, verification, and comparison with European experience. Thanks to the political emigration caused by tsarism, revolutionary Russia, in the second half of the nineteenth century, acquired a wealth of international links and excellent information on the forms and theories of the world revolutionary movement, such as no other country possessed.
“On the other hand, Bolshevism, which had arisen on this granite foundation of theory, went through fifteen years of practical history (1903-1917) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience. During those fifteen years, no other country knew anything even approximating to that revolutionary experience, that rapid and varied succession of different forms of the movement—legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, local circles and mass movements, and parliamentary and terrorist forms. In no other country has there been concentrated, in so brief a period, such a wealth of forms, shades, and methods of struggle of all classes of modern society, a struggle which, owing to the backwardness of the country and the severity of the tsarist yoke, matured with exceptional rapidity, and assimilated most eagerly and successfully the appropriate ‘last word’ of American and European political experience.”
—“Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder (1920)
Central to the Bolsheviks’ capacity to uphold the revolutionary lessons they had learned and to intervene effectively was Lenin’s struggle for a democratic-centralist vanguard party of professional revolutionaries. In his 1902 polemic against Economism, Lenin argued that it was “our duty to assist every capable worker to become a professional agitator, organiser, propagandist, literature distributor, etc., etc.” (What Is To Be Done?). He stressed: “A worker-agitator who is at all gifted and ‘promising’ must not be left to work eleven hours a day in a factory. We must arrange that he be maintained by the Party” (ibid.).
The LSSP demonstrated features of general social-democratic functioning as well as of the particular bourgeois society in which it operated. The leadership was the educated, English-speaking elite—MPs, lawyers and trade-union officials. They kept their connections to the rest of the petty-bourgeois and bourgeois elite. UNP Cabinet members would attend the weddings of LSSP leaders’ daughters. Samarakkody’s wife would tell the story of running into Mrs. Bandaranaike at her old school girls’ association and being asked how the “old lion” Edmund was.
The caste, family and social structures of Sri Lanka all emphasise status and hierarchy. Ideas are examined not for their merit but according to the status of the presenter. To question or challenge an idea implies disrespect and ingratitude. Thus in political parties or in trade unions, the educated leader becomes a kind of benevolent patron and guardian, to whom deferential loyalty should be extended. What full-timers the LSSP had were often ill-educated activists, unemployed volunteers or workers in the party press, while the lawyers and MPs acted as public spokesmen for the party. And while the English-speaking leaders could read Trotsky, virtually nothing was translated into Sinhala or Tamil. The division was between anointed and informed leaders and the followers who voted LSSP. LSSP conferences were tests of the oratorical skills of the established leaders and not a struggle of the whole membership for a common revolutionary line. Our own debates with Samarakkody over the popular front and the national question were not taken to the RWP membership nor were translations made for RWP internal bulletins.
How can a revolutionary party recruit and develop, not least, women members if it adheres to these practices, which serve only to maintain the traditional subordination of women? This is not the way of Bolshevism, and is antithetical to the struggle to become the revolutionary vanguard of the working class and the tribune of the people. In the ICL we struggle for the membership as a whole to participate in the life of the organisation, including at the international level.
Samarakkody’s last years were mostly downhill. Personal grief came from the suicides of his son and daughter-in-law. The RWP formed a lash-up with the Italian Gruppo Operaio Rivoluzionario (GOR), the rump of a youth grouping that had fused with the iSt in 1980. The GOR’s wimpy lider minimo had distinguished himself by volunteering information on his group to the police. Only an old charlatan could have kept such company. In 1983, Meryl Fernando and Tulsiri Andrade split from Samarakkody amid recriminations over who would make an international trip, charging that “his method of party building was highly egoistic & individualistic. Any political criticism of him was regarded by him as a personal insult” (“Why We Split From the Revolutionary Workers Party,” 5 February 1984). According to Fernando and Andrade, Samarakkody had also advocated an entry into the NSSP. That split confirmed the moribund character of the RWP, the best elements having gone to the iSt; by the time Samarakkody died little else was left of the RWP.
Among some 2,000 people who turned out to Samarakkody’s funeral in January 1992 were prominent spokesmen of the LSSP, NSSP, CP and other thoroughly reformist organisations. This in itself spoke to the ambiguity of the legacy Samarakkody left behind, and the fact that he remained to the end within the orbit of the popular-frontist, parliamentarist milieu. Yet the fact that in 1985 a Tamil militant group proposed Samarakkody, a Sinhalese, for a cease-fire monitoring committee, was an abiding testimony to his reputation. Around the same time we posed internally the following evocative scenario for the island of Lanka and Tamil Eelam: that there be a Tamil prime minister, that Trincomalee be occupied by a couple of divisions of Vietnamese veterans of the taking of Saigon wearing pith helmets with red stars, and that Edmund Samarakkody be president.
In our 27 October 1973 letter to Samarakkody we observed:
“When the Third International was conclusively finished as a revolutionary force and Trotsky set about to build a Fourth, there were a number of outstanding Communist leaders who emerged uncorrupted from the Stalinized Comintern. Sneevliet, Rosmer, Chen Tu-hsiu, Andres Nin (Christian Rakovsky was a special case) come to mind. But even in concert with a great leader of the stature of L. D. Trotsky (and history has permitted no Trotskys among us today), these comrades were unable to find the road to, or unable to persist in, the highest level of communist struggle under the new and sharply altered conditions. They fell away.”
Samarakkody, too, fell away.