Michael Kidron

Tropical Trotskyism

The cruel dilemma of socialists in a poor country, getting poorer

(3 July 1969)

Michael Kidron, Tropical Trotskyism, Socialist Worker, 3rd July 1969.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

WHAT CAN a revolutionary socialist do in a place like Ceylon? His theory points towards the workers as the revolutionary class; in practice he lives among ultra-conservative peasants.

His ideology is wholly secular; his supporters are religious. Presumably he reacts as many of the Ceylonese Trotskyists do, by kneeling down in Buddhist temples while thinking about workers’ councils.

Occasionally he goes further than mere thinking. The Lanka Samaja Samaj Party (LSSP), Ceylon’s Trotskyist party, are actually planning to carry out many of the things they have been speaking about since their earliest days.

United Front

They have joined with Mrs Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – itself. a coalition of peasants, small businessmen and the higher urban salariat – and with the Moscow-line Communist Party to form a united left front to fight next year’s elections.

The ‘coalition’ is likely to win. The price of tea on which the economy depends is falling steadily and irreversibly, and the government is forced to pare its expenditure. Aid is short and prices are rising.

The local elections, now under way, have shown a 10 per cent or more swing towards the opposition (mainly benefiting the SLFP).

The LSSP In particular are prepared to go the whole hog once the date of the general election is announced. The unions they control will call for strikes, sit-ins and workers’ councils. They will organise monster demonstrations.

They need to do so not only in order to demonstrate to their coalition partners their control of an independent power base and so get the best out of the post-election bargaining for ministerial portfolios, but in order to rouse their worker and urban lower middle-class supporters to the highest pitch of enthusiasm.

They need the enthusiasm to sustain a major assault on the privileges and power of private capital and its supporters on the island. They intend to control tightly, if not take over, the largely foreign-run tea industry.

They intend the same for foreign trade. In order to do these things, they will have to purge the administration, the police, judiciary and the army and to clamp severe restrictions on travel by the local rich.

Unless they can rely on Colombo’s workers and clerks to provide the will and the organisation, none of it could take place.

So far so good. But they need the enthusiasm for other reasons also – and this is where the tropical poison begins to sap the party’s declared socialism.

Ceylon is poor. She is terribly dependent on the export of plantation products, primarily tea, whose prices are steadily falling. Unless she can break into new export markets for manufactured goods she will simply become poorer.

Exporting new goods is not easy, particularly in competition with spectaculars like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore and it is made less easy by Ceylon’s relatively high level of social welfare expenditure – relative, that is, to what goes in this region – which sustains such ‘luxuries’ as free, universal education right up to and including university education.

If the transition is to be made at all – and it is undeniably necessary – productivity will have to be jacked up and wages held down. There is no alternative. All the LSSP can hope for is that the workers will make the sacrifice willingly.

Foreign Squeeze

This then is their dilemma: they are a working-class party in theory, yet much of their policy is directed at making palatable the sacrifices they intend demanding from the workers; they are ostensibly a socialist party, yet much of their programme is concerned with making Ceylon competitive in a capitalist world.

It is a cruel dilemma, and one that can become only crueller as, and if, the left-coalition implements its economic programme. For as they do so they must become increasingly isolated – foreign capital will put on the squeeze, the coalition’s small business allies will take fright and the anti-coalition left will nibble successfully at their working-class support.

It is intimations of this isolation that brings marxists to bow before the Buddha.


Last updated on 30.12.2004