Reviewed by T. Perera

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party from its Beginnings to its Expulsion

Blows Against the Empire: The Lanka Sama Samaja Party, 1935-1964

Review of Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4;
Series editor, Al Richardson. Socialist Platform/Porcupine Books, 1997. Paperback, 333pp, £10.00.

Source: What’s Next?
First Published: This article was first published in the Sri Lankan Sunday Times, 21 December 1997
Markup and Edited: D. Walters for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line in 2009

THIS BOOK covers the history of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) from its foundation in 1935, through its adherence to the Fourth International in the late 1930s, its illegal activity during the Second World War, its attitude towards the country’s independence, the contentious issue of the state language, and its role in the Hartal of 1953, to its joining a coalition government led by the SLFP in 1964, which led to its expulsion from the Trotskyist world organisation.

The editors have assembled materials tracing the development of the island’s oldest political party – once a major force in the local political scene that led large and militant trade unions and strikes and had at one point a parliamentary contingent of 17 representatives. The selection has been slanted towards accounts and documents from the local movement itself.

Kumari Jayawardene provides the background to the formation of the party while Ranjit Amarasinghe charts its transition from an independent organisation to a coalition partner. Two interviews, hitherto unpublished, given to Bob Pitt – by the late Prins Rajasooriya during his visit to Britain in 1990, and by the legendary Mark Anthony Bracegirdle in London in 1995 – are included.

Veteran Trotskyist Meryl Fernando gives a detailed account of the period 1939-60. He joined the party during wartime while still a university student. He later represented the LSSP and the LSSP (Revolutionary) as MP for Moratuwa, from 1956 to 1964. He comments that the Samasamajists in the immediate postwar period had "the potential of being the unifying force to rally the anti-imperialist forces around the slogan ’Independence from British rule’ and by calling upon the British to quit Ceylon. In such a situation there was the possibility of drawing the minorities behind the working class banner by guaranteeing democratic rights, and in particular the Tamil minority the right of self-determination. Although this was on the agenda of the day, both the LSSP and the Ceylon Unit of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India (BLPI) failed to launch a struggle to compel the British to leave Ceylon".

Charles Erwin, an American left-wing writer, contributes an article investigating the evolution of the movement in India during the 1940s.

On the eve of India independence, in February 1946, the sailors of the Royal Indian Navy rose in revolt. Bombay was at the centre of the uprising. It spread to Karachi, Calcutta and Cochin. Indian ratings on 74 ships, 4 flotillas and 20 shore establishments took part. For six days they were `free’ from the colonial masters and superior officers. Within days general strikes gripped the cities and towns of the subcontinent. The BLPI walkouts from factories were staged. The Bombay Evening News blamed "Trotskyist rowdies" for instigating the general strike of 300,000 textile workers. Police and military units opened fire on demonstrators, culminating in an eight-hour battle at Castle Barracks. Hundreds died of gunshot wounds. The shock-waves were felt in Delhi and London.

The Indian National Congress was hostile to the ratings. The British Prime Minister informed parliament that Congress had officially disclaimed involvement in the revolt. Congressman Sardar Vallabhai Patel demanded unconditional surrender by the sailors. Jinnah too asked for surrender. Nehru was slightly more ambivalent and Mahatma Gandhi subsequently said "the ratings had been badly advised".

Personal concerns of the sailors sparked the revolt and soon fused with the national liberation struggle. There are some who even see the British government’s decision to pull out in 1947 as being precipitated by the naval revolt. Within days the British announced the Cripps Mission which brought a new plan for departure. The Indian Naval Revolt is now almost a forgotten episode.

Other items reprinted include articles by N.M. Perera on the language issue, Colvin R. de Silva on Independence, Philip Gunawardena on revolutionary defeatism, Leslie Goonewardene on the Third International, Edmund Samarakkody on the assassination of Bandaranaike, V. Karalasingham on the 1956 general election, Bala Tampoe on the Hartal, and an interview with Selina Perera which appeared in the American Socialist Appeal in 1939.

The editors acknowledge that the picture assembled does not amount to a history; rather it provides a few of the materials on the basis of which a history could be written.