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George Jan Lerski

Origins Of Trotskyism In Ceylon

Chapter I
The Party of Protest Is Launched

For almost one-and-a-half centuries, Ceylon was considered by the British Government to be an experimental or “premier” colony. In less than a hundred and fifty years this faraway and fairly prosperous Crown Colony went through the whole scale of governmental change from completely autocratic rule to completely independent parliamentary self-government; it was used as the prototype of Whitehall’s design for a gradual decolonization policy. [1] Of course, indigenous Ceylonese strife accelerated the speed of freedom from British Raj (imperial rule).

In that respect, the group of Western-trained leftists who launched the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Ceylon Equality Party) December 18, 1935, played indeed the pioneering role, although it is questionable whether the LSSP really was “the oldest party on the island.” [2] More correct seems to be the statement that “the first Ceylonese political party worthy of the name was the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, which was founded in 1934 [sic].” [3] The LSSP was not at the beginning a truly Marxist, and even less so a Trotskyite, movement, Young English-educated radicals returned to Ceylon and founded a militant political organization with the broad aims of national independence and moderate socialism. They were in opposition to the old nineteenth century liberals who led the Ceylon National Congress (established 1919), which was loyal to the British Raj, and to the reformist Ceylon Labour Party (established 1927), which was in reality a one-man show by its leader, A.E. Gonnesinghe. It took these radicals a good three years to develop into a revolutionary socialist party. It was only in late 1939 that they officially espoused Trotskyism as a result of their dissatisfaction with the Stalinist-controlled Third International, first over the Moscow show trials of the Bolshevik leadership and ultimately over the Nazi-Soviet pact which unleashed World War II. [4] Early in 1940 the LSSP became the most, if not only, effective Trotskyite movement in the world.

In order to understand this unique phenomenon it is necessary to be sufficiently aware of the political and socio-economic circumstances that brought the LSSP into being. As a result of the pressure exercised by the leaders of the Ceylon National Congress (a weaker replica of the dynamic Indian National Congress), the British decided to reform the constitutional system by sharing more political power with the Ceylonese. In the tradition of the liberal Colebrooke Re’ forms of 1833, the British first granted new concessions toward representative government in the two Orders-in-Council of 1920 and 1924, proclaimed respectively by the Governor-General, Sir William Manning. Considered insufficient by the leaders of the Ceylon National Congress and proving unsatisfactory from the British point of view, the Orders-in-Council were revised by a Parliamentary Commission representing all British parties, under the chairmanship of the Earl of Donoughmore.

The main features of the so-called Donoughmore Constitution of 1931 were: the epoch-making introduction of the adult franchise; the abolition of the communal (Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, European. Burgher) electorates; and the creation of a Board of Ministers, composed of the chairmen of the seven executive committees and the three ranking British officers of state. In short, as pointed out by Ceylonese historian G.C. Mendis, the Commissioners “decided to place Ceylon on the path of self-government by recommending the adoption of a form of semi-responsible government.” [5]

Although it is of importance that the Ceylon National Congress demanded a kind of “semi-responsible government,” with its eventual aim a dominion status, its leadership, composed of the indigenous plantocracy, was actually opposed to the revolutionary idea of universal suffrage. (The number of voters had increased seven-fold, from 204,000 in the 1924 elections to the Legislative Council to about one-and-a-half million in the 1931 elections to the first State Council.) But it would be unfair to say that the franchise for every man and woman over twenty-one was a spontaneous gift from the Donoughmore Commissioners. At least one group, actually the first one to use the designation of a political party, namely Ceylon Labour Party, “made it an essential part of their programme” as far as the manhood suffrage was concerned. [6] While, according to Professor Ludowyk, “The Ceylon National Congress had never been a political party, it never based itself on mass support, nor did it attempt to appeal to the country as a party,” [7] certainly this is not true of the small but dynamic Labour Party. Even the official historians of the Trotskyite movement in Ceylon recognized its pioneering contributions: “The Labour Party ... had played a progressive role along with the Ceylon Labour Union in the twenties in the first important awakening of Ceylon’s working class ...” [8] It was organized by A.E. Goonesinghe, a colorful figure who “used to hold rallies, and drive around Colombo with the red flag flying from the bonnet of his car.” [9] Whatever the criticism of Goonesinghe’s high-handed bossism may be, he certainly deserves the name of the founding father of Ceylonese trade unionism. As emphasized by an impartial observer,

He succeeded in mobilizing the Colombo worker whom up to that time the politician had either lectured or patronized. In 1923 and in 1925 Columbo knew its first big strikes. Goonesinghe’s militancy, based on his reading of the Irish struggle against the British, did secure various benefits for the cohorts he led. First in the field in organizing the urban worker, Goonesinghe earned his reward in the control of an interest group with voting rights in the next decade. [10]

According to testimony taken by the Donoughmore Commission, that first trade union in Ceylon’s history was thought to represent in 1931 about 40,000 members, [11] many of whom were involved in successful strikes in the Colombo area.

As convincingly demonstrated by the author of the “Working Class Movement in Ceylon,” after the formation of the Ceylon Labour Union in 1922 Mr. Goonesinghe “came to be the most forceful and dominant figure of the union and well may it be said that down to the thirties he was the undisputed labor boss in Colombo.” [12] The first estate workers’ organizations to protect and attend to the grievances of Indian plantation workers were those set up in the late twenties and early thirties by K. Natesa Iyer, a Brahmin journalist who, as an active member of both the Legislative and State Councils, organized the first All-Ceylon Indian Estate Labourers’ Federation and later the Ceylon Indian Workers’ Federation. For a number of years the latter worked closely with the Ceylon Labour Union in Colombo but ultimately broke away, dissatisfied with Mr. Goonesinghe’s communalist policy toward Tamil laborers. Iyer’s methods were mainly constitutional and conciliatory in organizing and fighting for labor, and there appear to have been no strikes of any note on the estates up until 1935, when there were well over 600,00 people constituting the estate labor population, always the potential epicenter of any major revolutionary upheaval in Ceylon. [13]

In January 1928 it was decided, at a conference between A.A. Purcell, an English Member of Parliament, and Mr. Goonesinghe, that the Ceylon Labour Union would take steps to form a trade-union conference based on the British pattern. On his return from the June 1928 Imperial Labour Conference in London, Mr. Goonesinghe organized the All Ceylon Trade Union Congress in August of the same year, with twenty-two organizations represented. Besides his own Ceylon Labour Union, which claimed 40,000 organized members in Colombo, and various branches in the smaller towns like Negombo, Nawalapitiya, and Badulla, other early Ceylonese unions were the Chauffeurs’ Union, the Printers’ Union, the Naval Workers’ Union, the Domestic Servants’ Union, the Buddhist Transport Workers’ Union, and a Salpity Korale Peasants’ and Workers’ Union. The following bold demands were put forward on behalf of the workers:

  1. the right of combination and legal recognition of trade unions
  2. workmen’s compensation and the employer’s liability for its payment
  3. minimum wages
  4. regulation of hours of work
  5. arbitration courts
  6. old-age pensions
  7. housing and rent restriction; and
  8. maternity benefits. [14]

While it is claimed by the former president of Ceylon’s First Labour Tribunal, Mr. W.P.N. de Silva, that “most of the demands made by the All Ceylon Trade Union Congress have been acceded to by legislation,” [15] it actually took eight years until the Workmen’s Compensation Ordinance and the Trade Unions Ordinances were enacted as a result of additional economic and political pressures. A wave of strikes occurred in the wake of the 1928 Congress, culminated by the Tramway strike in February 1929 when the Maradana Police Station was burned down in the capital city. Although Mr. Goonesinghe was accused, in that period, “of trying to import Bolshevism into the country,” he actually had switched by then to the conciliatory tactic of bargaining with the employer. [16]

Ceylon’s agricultural economy, which is characterized by the one-sided plantation system (tea, rubber, and coconuts), proved particularly vulnerable at the time of the world’s great depression in the early nineteen-thirties. As pointed out by Sir Ivor Jennings in his The Economy of Ceylon,

The values of the three major commodities rise and fall almost in unison ... in the main a reflex of world conditions ... In boom conditions the values are up; in a depression they fall. When it is remembered that these commodities ... pay for imports, and that the imports are mainly food and clothing it will be appreciated that the trade cycle has substantial effect on the prosperity of the island. [17]

Indeed, after the boom of the twenties that reached its peak for Ceylon’s export commodities (particularly rubber) in 1927, the export of tea, rubber and coconut products hit its lowest mark in 1932, resulting in mass unemployment and even famine, unknown in that otherwise fairly prosperous “resplendent island.” This in turn was one of the causes of the severe malaria epidemic of 1934-35, which took some 125,000 lives throughout the island. These sad circumstances were bound to radicalize the disgruntled masses and to motivate the young intellectuals dissatisfied with the reformist leadership of the Ceylon National Congress and its Tamil offshoot, the Tamil Mahajana Sabha (founded in 1921 in Jaffna by Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam).

“Independence and Socialism” thus became the battle cry of the leftist alumni of the Ceylon University College, and even more so of those students who were returning from England, where they were sent for higher studies by their well-to-do parents. [18] The whole fabric of the British-established plantation system was exposed and attacked by these scions of the wealthy families as serving the class interests of foreign and domestic capitalists and as being detrimental to the needs of the Ceylonese working masses. While the immense economic upheaval of the nineteenth century, which saw the change from feudal paddy-cultivation to large-scale coffee and coconut production, and later to tea and rubber production, was commonly recognized as a necessary stage in the island’s development, Marxist critics of the so-called colonial exploitation were apt to overlook the tremendous importance of the costly infrastructure left by the British, which by 1947 had made of Ceylon one of the most advanced countries in the Orient. [19]

The rise of modern nationalism on the other side of the twenty-mile Palk Strait separating Ceylon from India was bound to have a great impact on the dissatisfied Ceylonese intelligentsia. The charismatic figure of Mahatma Gandhi and his Congress Party’s “struggle for Freedom of India ...” precisely because it had no parallel in Ceylon, tended to be idealized by radical and liberal elements.” [20] The economic framework of Ceylon was thus branded by the leftist youth leaders as that of imperialist exploitation. This argument was supported by such obvious facts as that most of the profit-making tea and rubber plantations were owned by the “Europeans” (the traditional designation used by the Ceylonese to describe the British, successors in Ceylon to previous Portuguese and Dutch masters), or that the much-needed home-production of staple food stuffs and basic consumer goods was neglected. Moreover, the fact that the average planter was primarily concerned with hiring the cheapest labor and getting the highest prices for his products had created an increasingly tense situation ever since the mid-nineteenth century between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Since the Sinhalese up-country peasant, happy with cultivation of his small paddy field, was reluctant to undertake steady responsible work in the hill-plantations far from his village, the half-starving but industrious Tamil coolies were brought from South India on a semipermanent basis. The racial, linguistic, and religious differences between those “Tamil Indians,” who constituted in the early 1930’s about ten percent of the island’s then six million population, and the indigenous Sinhalese majority were to be frequently exploited by unscrupulous or fanatic politicians.

These and other disturbing factors paved the way for the gradual foundation of what became the party of protest. In addition to the impact of Indian striving for national independence, the rising tide of doctrinal radicalism in English universities was bound to further stimulate those disgruntled intellectuals who studied abroad. It was then that the Marxist-Leninist exposure of modern colonial imperialism as the alleged last stage of decaying capitalism was used, thus providing the young revolutionaries with an appealing theoretical foundation for their future activities.

They learned their socialism mainly in the classrooms of the London School of Economics and Social Sciences, dominated in the interwar period by the fascinating personality of Professor Harold J. Laski. But America also can claim to have influenced at least one of the founding fathers of Ceylonese Trotskyism, namely D.P.R. Gunawardena. Popularly referred to as “Philip,” he was introduced to so-called scientific socialism during his studies in the late twenties at the University of Wisconsin, where, together with his Indian counterpart Jayaprakash Narayan, he “received his training in Marxism from Scott Nearing.” [21] From Madison “Philip” proceeded to New York City, where he got in touch with leftist circles. His experience in the United States during a period of almost unrestricted capitalism, marked by corruption and isolationism, made a strong impact on that quixotic figure. Although he remained critical of America, there were many aspects of American technological achievements and democratic institutions that impressed him very favorably, as indicated in a number of his later statements in parliamentary debates. [22] From New York Gunawardena went to London, where he established the first Ceylonese contacts with such international revolutionaries as Rajani Palm Dutt, Harry Pollitt, Krishna Menon, Saklatwalla, and C.L.R. James.

Many prominent Ceylonese intellectuals among early leftists owe their Marxist indoctrination to their contacts in English universities. Such is the case with the brilliant criminal lawyer, orator, and historian Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, author of the definitive two-volume study Ceylon Under the British Occupation 1795-1833. Others include the country’s foremost parliamentarian, Dr. N.M. Perera; the first socialist member of Ceylon’s State Council, Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe; and Marxist leaders of Ceylon Leslie Goonewardene, Vernon Gunasekera, Pieter Keuneman, William de Silva, and T.B. Subasinghe.

When these sons of the low-country Sinhalese plutocracy arrived in England to study, the Western world was in the midst of the vast unemployment and industrial unrest caused by the great depression. After the failure of Ramsey MacDonald and the Labour Party all shades of radical socialism were flourishing in English universities. Besides the influence of G.D.H. Cole, Victor Gollancz, C.E.M. Joad, and the moderate Fabians, the impact of Professor Laski’s then collectivist creed, formulated in his most revolutionary work, The State in Theory and Practice, was particularly strong. Describing the state as an instrument of class domination or “simply coercive power used to protect the system of rights and duties of one process of economic relationship from invasion by another class which seeks to change them in the interests of another process,” he preached that “the differences between the classes can only be settled by force” and emphasized, as did the Marxist-Leninists, the inevitability of revolution as the midwife of social change. [23]

Such gospel of violence did not fall on deaf ears, and when applied to the situation in South Asia led to the embracing of Lenin’s explosive theory of colonial imperialism as the ultimate of the four stages of the “scientifically” doomed capitalism. Although it was originally J. A. Hobson who exposed in 1902 the evils of financial imperialism in subtropical areas, it was Lenin who drew from those premises the practical revolutionary conclusions. Hobson’s main premise was that “by far the most important economic factor in imperialism is the influence relating to investments” and that “every advanced industrial nation has been tending to place a larger share of its capital outside the limits of its own political area, in foreign countries or in colonies, and to draw a growing income from this source.” He subsequently condemned the hypocrisy of business circles, those “parasites upon patriotism” whose mouths are full of “noble phrases, expressive of their desire to extend the area of civilisation, to establish good government, promote Christianity, extirpate slavery, and elevate the lower races,” while their true attitude of mind was best expressed by that arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes “in his famous description of Her Majesty’s Flag as the greatest commercial asset in the world.” [24]

While rejecting Hobson’s advocacy of “social reform,” Lenin was evidently impressed by the economic determinism of the English don’s analysis, which called the bluff of such worn-out, window-dressing excuses as the White Man’s Burden or Manifest Destiny. In his crucial work Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin adopted in 1916 Hobson’s concept that the conquest and present exploitation of the colonies by Western powers was primarily due to the monopolistic control of profits; the greedy plutocracy was eager to invest its savings in the underdeveloped territories. There they could not only dump surplus manufactured commodities but also enhance easy profits by controlling the supply of tropical raw materials through the unrestricted use of cheap labor. Although this pseudoscientific argument has since been voided, both by recent economic history and by the implementation of Keynes’ theory, [25] it seemed extremely appealing to radical students from colonial countries such as Ceylon. They could hardly fail to be deeply convinced that sooner or later the Leninist-Bolshevist call for revolutionary action to wreck the last vestiges of the decaying imperialist system was bound to produce a world-wide result. While this call was addressed primarily to all destitute proletarians regardless of race and religion, it carried the promise of the full support of the mighty Soviet Union, allegedly the only major power free from the creeping economic crisis. More over, such a revolutionary action was to be directed not by young hotheads or by the wishy-washy leadership of the Second International (compromised by “soc-patriotic” betrayal of the world brotherhood during World War I), but by the shrewd professionals of the Comintern.

Challenged upon their return to Ceylon by the rising dissatisfaction with British rule, the young Ceylonese Marxists well equipped with theoretical baggage, decided to immerse themselves in all kinds of rebellious activities and to mobilize popular opposition against the prevailing status quo. Unfortunately, their handicap, then as now, was their own social and educational background, namely that of the Western-oriented, well-to-do intelligentsia. This could have been overcome only through total commitment to, and full identification with, the real needs of the working masses – not an easy task in view of the wide gap between the English-educated urban upper-middle class and the rural Sinhalese population or the immigrant Tamil estate laborers. [26] Indeed, this became the crucial problem of the Ceylonese Left, in spite of its initial successes, by no means an isolated phenomenon in Marxist movements whose nonproletarian revolutionary leadership usually assumes to be the professional vanguard of the toiling masses.

The youthful group that “at the commencement numbered a bare half-dozen composed principally of students who had returned from abroad,” [27] provided in 1932 the leadership of the Wellawatte Mills workers union with Dr. Colvin R. de Silva as president and Vernon Gunasekera as the secretary. Having thus entrenched themselves for the first time in the labor movement, the Marxists organized in February 1933 a mammoth and successful strike of some 1,400 workers, which lasted until July of the same year. Enraged by the unexpected competition, Mr. Goonesinghe played “the role of a supplier of scabs to help the management to break the strike.” [28] Additional efforts were made by de Silva and his comrades to break into the working-class field dominated by Goonesinghe, and the group published for several months the first socialist paper in the Sinhalese language, Kamkaruwa (The Worker), but, as admitted in A Short History of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. “Excepting the Wellawatte Mills, in this clash Mr. Goonesinghe was generally the victor. The young enthusiasts learned in the hard way that the working class does not lightly abandon its traditional leadership.” [29] This head-on clash with the reformist leader of the Labour Party, magnified by real ideological differences, was to prevent the much-needed unity of the labor movement in British-controlled Ceylon.

An excellent opportunity to demonstrate against British rule and to mobilize larger sections of public opinion in the struggle for independence arose in connection with the spontaneous protest on the part of a certain Aelian Perera, a Ceylonese ex-serviceman, against the November 11 sale of poppies to commemorate the victorious end of World War I. As the monies collected by the hordes of poppy sellers were remitted annually to Britain for the benefit of British ex-servicemen, to the neglect of the few Ceylonese ex-servicemen, Perera, who had himself fought in the war, started a rival sale of yellow flowers of the tulip tree (Suriya mal) on the same day with the proceeds earmarked exclusively for the benefit of those Ceylonese who had suffered while fighting for their British masters. The idea evidently appealed to an English teacher, Miss Doreen Young, who had just taken a teaching post in south Ceylon. An article, The Battle of the Flowers, signed by her, appeared in the Ceylon Daily News and exposed the absurdity of forcing Ceylonese schoolchildren to purchase poppies to help British veterans at the expense of their own. Apparently she made a strong case for the sale of Suriya flowers because a plethora of letters to the editor were written by other British residents of Ceylon reproaching her for being so shockingly “un-British.” An anti-imperialist and antiwar Suriya Mal Movement was launched on the initiative of the leftist-controlled South Colombo Youth League. At a meeting held early in November 1937 [?] at the Horana residence of Mrs. Wilmot Perera, the former Doreen Young, now Mrs. A.S. Wickremasinghe, [30] was elected president, Terence N. de Zilva and Robin Ratnam joint secretaries, and Roy de Mel treasurer of the new movement. Since Mrs. Wickremasinghe had moved to Colombo to become principal of Ananada Ballika Vidyalaya, her bungalow was used as headquarters for the widespread operation. [31] Suriya flowers were sold on every Armistice Day from then on other streets of Colombo and other cities of Ceylon in competition with the Earl Haig poppy sales. According to an official LSSP account:

The purchasers of the Suriya Mal were generally from the poorer sections of society and the funds collected were not large ... The proceeds of the campaign were utilized for the publication of literature and the education of a child of a depressed community ... Emblazoning the words “Peace” and “Freedom” on its banners the new Suriya Mal Movement ... provided a rallying point for the anti-imperialist minded youth of the time.

Manipulated from behind the scenes by a nucleus of convinced Socialists (Dr. N.M. Perera, Dr. A.S. Wickremasinghe, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, Vernon Gunasekera, and the two Gunawardena brothers, Philip and Robert), [32] and entrenched in the Youth Leagues of the Colombo metropolitan area the Suriya Mal Movement became the first Ceylonese political-propaganda center for full independence. [33] A pamphlet published in November 1937, by the executive committee of the movement, criticized the way in which the two million rupees collected by the Poppy Fund in Ceylon were spent and also attacked Whitehall’s lukewarm policy with regard to such major international issues as the “Italian Fascist rape of Abyssinia, the Fascist invasion of Spain and ... Japanese agression in China,” concluding with a belligerent-pacifist credo:

We appeal to you to wear the Suriya flower on November 11th, and demonstrate to the Nation your self-respect and independence. By wearing a Suriya Mal you will register your refusal to encourage participation in Imperialist War the glorifying of which leads people to senseless killing of each other and to the sacrifice of themselves on the bloody-altar of Imperialism.
Every Suriya-Mala is a blow against Imperialism,
Fascism and War!
Join the fight for Peace!
Buy the Poppy and buy hunger, slavery and War!
Wear the Suriya-Mala for Freedom and Peace! [34]

Naturally, the ladies of the Suriya Mal Movement encountered some opposition from the Poppy Day ladies and from the conservative press. At least one attempt was made on the part of British authorities to curb the movement’s effectiveness through the “Street Collection Regulation Ordinance.” [35] This restrictive measure was blocked in 1936, however, by the majority of the Council. The protest movement later became useful in the anti-malaria campaign during the 1934-35 epidemic: “Bands of Suriya Mal workers encamped in the worst affected areas and did valuable relief work in the malaria-stricken villages.” [36] The very fact that the movement, which arose in open revolt to British prestige, was tolerated until the outbreak of the Second World War speaks rather well of the British sense of fair play.

To further aggravate both the political situation, and the tail-end impact of the American economic blizzard, several major climactic calamities occurred in the period 1934-35:

In 1934 the rains which normally precede the south-west monsoon did not arrive and in many districts the paddy crops failed. Not until October were the rains normal; but the October rains, during which the seed germinated, were followed by another drought, which caused the crops to wither. The shortage in the 1934 paddy crop alone was estimated at 3 million bushels. Paradoxically in October there were floods in the Galle and Matara Districts and in November in the Negombo and Chilaw Districts. In October, also, the malaria epidemic began in the Kegalla and Kurunegalla Districts and spread to many parts of the Island: there were epidemics in eight districts and more severe malaria than usual in five others. The epidemics in turn affected food production, since masses of producers went down with fever. A special Commissioner for Relief had to be appointed and over Rs 8 million had to be voted for relief alone. [37]

Conflicting figures are given for the death toll, with a tendency to exaggerate on the part of the press and political agitators. According to one account, for instance, in eight months of 1934 as many as 125,000 died of malaria in the Western Province alone [38], while A Short History of the LSSP mentions 125,000 for the whole of Ceylon in the critical years of 1934-35. [39] Philip Gunawardena, in one of his State Council speeches, blamed the Board of Ministers for “killing” 180,000 people through “cutting down essential services, especially in matters pertaining to health, that made the malaria epidemic so acute ... The hospitals were understaffed, the dispensaries were undermanned and some hospitals had actually been closed.” [40] A sympathetic American observer further increased the casualty figures in his September 1939 report:

Widespread malnutrition and primitive sanitation create conditions naturally conductive to those fearful epidemics and plagues that sweep over Asia: malaria, bubonic plague, etc. In 1933 there were 1,000,000 cases of malaria, out of which 250,000 died. Maternal and infant mortality was very high, averaging 197 per 1,000 in ten years ending with 1936. [41]

Exaggerations aside, even by accepting the most conservative official estimate of the then Director of the Quarantine Department we find that the death rate from malaria rose twenty times, from 2,333 in 1934 to 47,317 in 1935 [42] a figure alarming enough. Moreover, according to a report of the Government Agent (British) of Ceylon’s West Province: “people generally, the rural population in particular, were underfed when the disease attacked them, and malarial fever was often complicated by the intestinal disorders clearly indicating inappropriate food and lack of proper nourishment.” [43]

At any rate the leftist angry young men were convinced that it was primarily malnutrition, the result of the evil colonial exploitation, which caused so many people in the villages to suffer and die, and they considered it their duty to become fully involved in on-the-spot relief work. Dr. A.S. Wickremasinghe, as the medical expert, took command in the countryside while the young barrister Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, the political scientist Dr. N.M. Perera, and the fiery revolutionist D.P.R. Gunawardena served as dispensary orderlies and distributors of necessities. From these activities they gained long-lasting popularity as dedicated social workers and earned their respective nicknames, “Colvin,” “N.M.,” “Philip,” and “Doctor Wicks” which became wellknown all over the country. This was an excellent baptism in their commitment to the cause of the oppressed villagers; it was later to secure them parliamentary seats in the post-World War II elections, not so much on the basis of their party program as on their own personal appeal.

According to a somewhat self-aggrandizing press account of the rescue work:

The two things given to each patient were a bottle of the standard quinine mixture and Marmite rolled into the form of vederala’s pills. The latter was said to have been the idea of the late Dr. Mary Ratnam and to have been more effective than the quinine itself, such was the degree of starvation among the peasantry. The Suriya Mal workers were amazed to see how this little Marmite revived them and put some life back into them.
The fore-runners of the Left movement provided relief from Homagama at one end to Ruanwella and Mawanella at the other. Eventually the Government yielded to pressure and began to provide these workers with supplies-barley, rice, dhall, and clothes-for the patients.
Their reason for using the Suriya Mal workers was not far to seek; the Government very soon discovered that of all the relief workers, they could be relied on to distribute the supplies most effectively and economically. .
Robin Ratnam saw to it that all supplies were accounted for to the very last detail. Thus the pioneers of the Left movement established another proud tradition that they have maintained to this day-absolute honesty and incorruptibility in the service of the people. .
Work in connection with malaria relief was an eye-opener to many of these people who were just getting to know the peasant masses. The poverty was incredible, the overcrowding even more so, fifteen, twenty or more people crammed into tiny huts, dying like flies.
This was what colonial exploitation meant: worse than the worst that prevailed in England when Marx and Engels analyzed the conditions of the working classes. This was what had to be fought [44]

Our group of anti-imperialists was still essentially unorganized but had at least one activist to champion a program of social services and the welfare state in Ceylon’s first State Council. In 1931 Dr. A.S. Wickremasinghe was elected the island’s first “socialist Solon” and served as a member for the Morawaka constituency. He was defeated in the 1936 elections by R.C. Kannagara. Dr. Wickremasinghe advocated specific measures leading toward social justice; in particular, he was responsible for urging workmen’s compensation, legal determination of minimum wages, maternity benefits, improved health and educational services, and the prohibition of the widespread exploitation of children in domestic work and even in factories. In his adamant fight against the existing order, he could count on only lukewarm and sporadic support from a few reformists in the Council such as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, D.J.J. Wimalasurendra, or the two representatives of the Ceylon Labour Party, A.E. Goonesinghe and S.W. Dassenaike. [45] The lone wolf of the rising Ceylonese Marxists soon became the target of concentrated attack by members who represented the vested interests of the Ceylonese Establishment:

Dr. Wickremasinghe’s activities naturally earned him the undying hatred of the Jayatilleke-Senanayake leadership, who resented his challenge to their policy of collaboration with the imperialism and defence of the existing socio-economic structure. They replied to his exposure of the conditions of the people under imperialist capitalist and feudal exploitation by calling him a ’second Katherine Mayo,’ out to slander Ceylon in the eyes of the world! Sir Baron dubbed him the ’Morawake atamassa’which was not a bad description of the way in which the reactionary bull resented Dr. Wickremasinghe biting into its hide! [46]

The announcement of the new general election for the Second State Council [47] was probably the decisive factor for the young rebels, who now organized themselves under a clear banner and appealed to the electorate with a coherent radical program. The objective circumstances seemed to be ripe for calling a vehement political party into existence. Considering the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931 “a rehearsal for democracy rather than the real thing, because the British retained wide powers throughout,” the socialists decided to make use of the fact that “the masses entered the political arena armed with the vote” [48] granted them in the universal franchise. It was thus necessary to awake the political consciousness of the people in order to prevent the State Council from remaining primarily the instrument of the possessing classes. The passing, for instance, of indirect taxes imposed on vital consumer goods in February 1932, under the pretext of temporary import duties to be lifted as soon as the depression was over, became a heavy (ten million rupees) burden carried mainly by the poor, who paid higher prices for such necessities as dahl, grain, barley, sage, onions, potatoes, sugar, and kerosene oil. Nonetheless these taxes were continued for five years. The State Council was, therefore, an important battleground because, as pointed out thirty years later by Senator Doric de Souza, then the Trotskyite leader of the opposition:

The State Councillors elected in 1931 were men of ’good family,’ landed proprietors, professional men and wealthy persons for the most part. They represented Ceylonese vested interests rather than the masses who elected them because the latter did not yet what the vote meant. When the masses are passive, as Marx observed, their ideas are solely those imparted by the ruling class. People thought of election to the legislature as an honour they were called on to confer on distinguished and wealthy people. The election contests were thus between wealthy persons only, and political questions hardly arose.
Inside the first State Council (1931-36) politics centred chiefly around Ceylonese efforts to wrest control of the administration from the British officials. The tone and subjects of debate did not suggest that the masses outside were auditors. The Budgets sedately presented by the British Financial Secretary did not reflect mass pressure for social services to any extent. Even in their terrible sufferings during the depression and the malaria epidemic the common people received little State assistance. [49]

In these circumstances, it became necessary in the second State Council to meet the spokesmen of the Ceylonese native plantocracy and of the Colombo’s swanky “Cinnamon Gardens” on their own ground and to challenge their policy with a stronger representation and with a clear people’s mandate. At the same time the leftists stepped up their anti-imperialist propaganda with the avowed aim of securing complete independence for Ceylon. While the chief enemy remained British rule, much closer, and therefore the more immediate target, was the mildly reformist Jayatilleke-Senanayake leadership of the “brown-sahibs.” The latter, in their so-called “Ministers’ Memorandum,” petitioned Whitehall to transfer more power to the elected Ministers, in other words to expand the “seven-tenths freedom” granted by the Donoughmore Constitution instead of demanding at least dominion status for the island; at this juncture the Leftist Youth Leagues rejected that halfhearted demand as “an abject capitulation to imperialism,” despite the National Congress campaign for its public support. They arranged protest rallies and alleged that “after three or four public meetings, in face of the opposition the Ministers dropped their campaign.” [50] This agitation for Ceylon’s full-fledged independence instead of the gradual expansion of representative government was bound to result in a head-on clash.

Weeks were spent in careful preparation of a coherent platform that was to challenge seriously most of the established institutions of Ceylonese life, including the sacrosanct problems of caste, race, and religious differences; it was then decided to launch a non-dogmatic Freedom Movement for independence socialism, and equality. As explained in the August 28, 1936 exposé by Philip Gunawardena in the second State Council: “In December of last year because of the violent false propaganda indulged by the leaders of the Ceylon National Congress we were compelled to meet together and form ourselves into a party.” [51] On December 18, 1935, some twenty determined intellectuals, workers, and students formed the Ceylon Socialist (or Equality) party. [52] Oriented toward the working masses, these “founding fathers” of the LSSP (most of them being between twenty-five and thirty years old) did not want an English name for the organization; Sinhalese being the language of the overwhelming majority, it was the Sinhalese designation that was of utmost importance. Thus the very name, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, was an innovation. At the time there were no accepted words in Sinhalese to describe the words ’Socialist’ or ’Communist.’ That is how the word ’Samasamajaya’ coined by Mr. Daily Jayawardana in the “Swadesa Mitraya” of that day to describe the word ’Socialist,’ came to be chosen. The new term had the added advantage of not being associated with the ideas of reformism that are attached to the English word ’Socialist.’ [53]

But this was only one of the many political terms gradually introduced by the Samasamajists, who were conscious from the very beginning that in order to bring politics to the common people it was necessary to employ language and terms they could understand. On the other hand, they were not eager to be branded with the awesome “communist” label, as indicated by Philip Gunawardena’s adamant denial in the State Council: “Our party is not a Communist Party ... It is a party which is much less militant and less demanding than the Communist or section of the Communist or Third International.” [54] Though most Samasamajists refused to be identified with the Stalinist Comintern, neither could they at that time be considered to be committed followers of Trotsky’s apocalyptic doctrine of the permanent revolution. As a matter of fact, the Paris-trained Indochinese Marxists of Hanoi and Saigon were far ahead of the Ceylonese Samasamajists in their espousal of Trotskism. [55] Certainly the first traces of the LSSP’s Trotskyite affiliation are not to be found in the party’s original plan for socialism in Ceylon, which resembles more the sober Fabian approach than the revolutionary philosophy of full-blooded Marxists. Their first Manifesto was more a gradual plan toward “the attainment of complete National Independence and that of Socialism” than the exposition of the class-struggle strategy. According to the second paragraph of the party’s constitution, the above two objectives were to be achieved by (1) the socialization of the means of production and distribution exchange, and (2) the abolition of social and economic inequality and oppression arising from differences of class, caste, race, creed, or sex.

These fundamental goals, though aimed at complete transformation of Ceylon’s socio-economic fabric, were to be implemented by peaceful means, enumerated in twenty-two specific down-to-earth demands in the LSSP 1935 Manifesto, published as the first of its many pamphlets. This pamphlet (soon to be sold out at the nominal price of five cents per copy) came to be used as a party platform. Its content indicated thorough familiarity with the actual grievances of the rural and urban working masses and constituted a basic framework for future economic planning for a politically independent, egalitarian society. These humanitarian cum economic demands read as follows:

  1. Abolition of domestic or industrial exploitation of child labor
  2. Free supply of school books to children in primary schools
  3. Free meals and milk to all children in primary schools
  4. Free pasture lands in every rural district
  5. Supply of seed paddy free of interest to cultivation
  6. Permanent abolition of irrigation rates
  7. Abolition of assignability of Tea and Rubber Coupons
  8. Abolition of Forest Laws relating to removal of brushwood and transport of timber
  9. Establishment of unemployment insurance for all workers
  10. Provision of work or maintenance for all in need
  11. Establishment of minimum wage so that all workers may maintain a decent standard of living
  12. Establishment of an eight-hour day for all workers
  13. Abolition of compulsory registration of trade unions
  14. Factory legislation to ensure decent working conditions
  15. Introduction of a Rent Restriction Act
  16. Clearance of slums and provision of better and cheaper housing for workers
  17. Use of vernaculars in the lower courts of law and in entries of recorded statements at police stations; and the extension of this use to all government departments
  18. Introduction of a scheme of National Health Insurance paying:
    1. Sick benefits
    2. Old-age benefits
    3. Maternity benefits
  19. Steeper graduation of income tax on the higher incomes
  20. Reimposition of estate duty on estates of ruppes 25,000 and over
  21. Abolition of Imperial Preference on the Japanese quota
  22. Progressive abolition of all indirect taxation [56]

Dr. Colvin R. de Silva was elected at that constitutional meeting on December 18, 1935, to serve as president of the party. He served in this capacity until his imprisonment by British authorities in June 1940. Although one of the wealthiest men among the founding fathers of LSSP, he belonged to a rather low caste of cinnamon peelers (Salagama); his election may be interpreted as another indication of Samasamajist revolt against the Low-Sinhalese establishment of the Goigama (cultivators’ caste) ruling families, even on the part of the Goigama fellow-members of the party. As a powerful, clear-minded orator and well-read dialectician, de Silva soon became one of the most convincing Marxist writers in Asia, with the qualities of a formidable political leader. [57] His personal fortune made him financially independent of any outside pressures. Moreover, like others of his wealthy comrades de Silva contributed heavily to the party funds. [58] Vernon Gunasekera, another able lawyer well versed in Marxism-Leninism, was elected the party’s first secretary. It was also decided at that founding congress that in addition to the incumbent Member for Morawaka, Dr. A.S. Wickremasinghe, three other LSSP candidates would run in the forthcoming elections to the second State Council; these would be the popular tribune Philip Gunawardena, to run for Member for Avissawefla, Dr. N.M. Perera, the party’s shrewd political scientist, to stand for the Ruanwella constituency, and the quiet but effective Marxist organizer, Leslie Goonewardene, for Panadura.

The campaign for public support was to start immediately with a series of mass meetings featuring the top speakers, who would popularize the party’s program as proclaimed in its Manifesto. Three days after the organization was called into being, the first of the public rallies was held at the Lorenz College Hall in Colombo. The first of the four orators, Dr. Colvin de Silva, claimed that socialism was the only remedy for the economic and political ills of Ceylon and that it was only through the medium of a determined socialist party that the ultimate salvation of the working people of Ceylon would assuredly come. Unaware of the Stalinist forced-labor system already unmasked by Trotsky, de Silva boasted that “Soviet Russia concretely illustrated today the untold opportunities for progress that existed under a socialist society even when the capitalist world was labouring in the depths of economic depression.” Before long de Silva was to denounce Soviet Russia in the strongest possible terms, but at that time he had still not been introduced to the subtleties of the Trotskyite opposition to the “Thermidorian” era of Stalin. He concluded with a call to arms: “The fight against capitalist exploitation in Ceylon inevitably led to the fight for national liberation ... In the fight for the establishment of the socialist society they had inevitably to come up against the reality of imperialism.” [59]

As an experienced social worker the next speaker, Dr. Wickremasinghe, discussed the LSSP’s task of ending the “economic inequality and moral degradation prevailing in Ceylon.” Political subjection, he said, means poverty and that was “the greatest problem that the world was faced with.” He advocated “the abolition of social and economic inequalities and of oppression arising from differences of class, caste, race, creed and sex.” It should be stressed that the preaching against caste considerations was not, in the special case of Ceylon, the way to become popular with the majority; as pointed out by an American cultural anthropologist, Bryce Ryan, “Hierarchical position of a caste tends, in Ceylon, to be in inverse relationship to the numerical size, the highest caste including perhaps one-half of the population. These are the Cultivators of Soil – or in Sinhalese – the Goigama caste.” Their equivalent in the Tamil community is the Vellala caste. Moreover one should not overlook the further stratification of the society into numerous subcastes. Nevertheless, Ryan stressed, “Any tendency for lower castes to view themselves in opposition to the highest caste is undoubtedly a very modern feature and part of the contemporary transition ...” [60] Certainly the Samasamajists did their full share in arousing rebellious feelings in accordance with the Marxist theory of class struggle.

The third speaker of that first mass meeting was the learned Dr. N.M. Perera, social scientist, whose task was to explain the need for “the Socialization of the Means of Production, Distribution and Exchange,” a very significant need in view of the growing unemployment. He even argued that “one of the reasons for the formation of the new Party was because there was a growing army of thinking, unemployed young men who honestly felt that there was something wrong in the present scheme of things.” [61]

The last speaker was the dynamic spellbinder “Philip” Gunawardena, who turned his characteristic style, often bordering on demagogy, to an appeal to nationalistic emotions:

We swear by our national heroes, our literature and our heritage. We are proud of Raja Sinha, who kept the Portugese at bay for a quarter of a century. We are proud of Puran Appu who attempted to release the Ceylonese from the yoke of the British Imperialism. Yes we are proud of our country’s heroes, but not of the “abbitaya” of fifty years ago of the Peliyagoda pirivena who was transformed into the large-scale Sir Baron Jayatilaka. [62]

This was the first of many successful public meetings organized by the party. From the very beginning of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party its leaders were uncompromising enemies of British rule and of the prevailing economic system in the crown colony. And with brilliant theoreticians, magnetic orators, and prolific pamphleteers (traditional weapons of the English leftists ever since the mid-seventeenth century) the challenge was formidable.

The party’s headquarters was opened in the Maradana industrial section of Colombo, at 38 Panchikawatte Road. Monthly subscriptions were fixed at Rupee One with a special rate of twenty-five cents for workers, peasants, students, and unemployed. But to conduct an effective election campaign, to organize meetings, to publish leaflets and pamphlets, to start the regular party press, and to maintain the headquarters of the movement, a great deal of money was necessary. [63] Even the fast growth of party membership to six hundred by the end of 1937 could not financially suffice for the growing needs of the newly launched movement. Active (dues-paying membership, recruited primarily from able college students) was never to pass the one-thousand mark. [64] The logical explanation of their sufficient funds is the self-imposed heavy taxation on the part of those Samasamajists who could afford substantial contributions, in addition to financial support by a few wealthy sympathizers such as the Wilmot Pereras. Indeed, party funds were regularly supplied by those voluntary donations and well-administered by the treasurer, Mrs. N.M. Perera. But during these first months of the LSSP it was more the correct timing of their political offensive, the youthful self-dedication and personal popularity of its talented founders, that contributed to the spectacular growth of the movement, than the amount of money involved or the gradual taking hold of their minds by the Marxist doctrine.

Besides the basic document of the party-the Manifesto, embodying the above-mentioned fundamental objectives-it soon became necessary to address the masses in the language of the majority of the people, through the regular party press. The Sinhalese weekly Samasamajaya was first published July 10, 1936. Its first editor was B.J. Fernando, composer of the international song of the Party. [65] In a few months time the party organ reached the imposing circulation of 8,000, and, as stated by Dr. de Silva at the first annual conference of the LSSP held on December 19, 1936, “only the inability of our press to print more copies prevents the immediate doubling of that circulation.” [66]

In addition to this basic vehicle of party propaganda, an intellectual periodical in the English language appeared in September 1936, under the name of The Young Socialist.

Although originally planned as a “Monthly Organ of the Lanka Students’ Socialist League,” it ceased to appear regularly with number 5 of volume one, published in April of 1937. Nevertheless, that high-level magazine continues sporadically until the present day, serving as one of the rallying centers for the leftist intellectuals of the country. Though not an official party organ, The Young Socialist has always been controlled, financed, and edited by the Samasamajists and may be considered as the outstanding Marxist periodical in Asia. Continuously attracted by the progressive ideas of the founding group, the best young politically conscious brains of the country became the party’s mainstay, gradually establishing the LSSP’s monopoly over Ceylonese campus life. Then an English-language organ of the party, The Samasamajist, came along on June 6, 1937, edited by Vernon Gunasekera; the Tamil weekly, Samatharmam, was published the following year with K. Ramanathan as its first editor. [67]

The first important test for the newly launched party was the election to the Second State Council of Ceylon, held in March of 1936. It came out of this trial with qualified success. Two of its four candidates were elected, D.P.R. Gunawardena and Dr. N.M. Perera; they served until their detention by the British authorities in June 1940. Dr. Wickremsinghe was defeated in Morawake in a hectic campaign by R.C. Kanangera, who had the full support of the old leadership of the Jayatilaka-Senanayaka and of the plantocracy of the region. Dr. Wickremasinghe departed within a year for London, where he was the vigorous representative of the party from the beginning of 1937. He soon fell under the Stalinist influence of staunch Comintern operators R. Palme Dutt, an Indo-Swede, and Englishman Harry Pollitt. The other unsuccessful 1936 candidate was the Marxist dialectician Leslie Goonewardene, son of a rich planting family, who lost in a close Panadura contest to the Deputy Speaker-to-be, Susanta de Fonseka, himself a man of rather liberal inclinations. Undiscouraged by that failure, the suave Goonewardene in close cooperation with Dr. de Silva, devoted his energy to the steady building of a truly Marxist movement. The two successful candidates were elected in the neighboring constituencies of Avissawella and Ruanwella, which gratefully returned these tireless antimalaria workers of the Suriya Mal Movement, Gunawardena and Perera. Neither of them, in spite of their Low-Country Goigama caste, could claim family roots in that rubber-planting, heavily populated Kelani River Valley; they were elected on the bases of their own political talents and the campaign was by no means easy. Dr. Perera testified later:

Not a single planter supported me ... I was not allowed to visit the estates. Definite instructions were sent out that estate labor vote must strictly support my opponent. I am not complaining one bit. It was my business to canvass Indian votes and get what I could, and it was the business of my opponents to get what they could. [68]

Once in the State Council Gunawardena and Perera proved to be extremely skillful proponents of the LSSP program; they constituted at the same time the most consistent nucleus of official opposition to the colonial status quo and the spearhead of constructive legal struggle toward attainment of the party’s goals. Moreover, serving Ceylon’s democracy with exemplary dedication they soon gained national prestige, becoming by 1939 the only avowed Trotskyite parliamentarians of significance anywhere in pre-World War II politics.



[1] ’Sir Charles Jefiries, Ceylon: The Path to Independence (New York: Frederick A. Pracger, 1963), p.18, ix. Jetiries, between 1946 and 1948, was in charge of Whitehall’s work relating to Ceylon as the Deputy Permanent Undersecretary in the Colonial Office. He states that: “Ceylon has been the prototype and model for the new Commonwealth of the latter part of the XX century. In Ceylon the British learnt by trial and error the art of colonial administration; but they learnt also the wisdom of relinquishing control when it was no longer tolerable by a people willing and able to maintain itself as an independent state. It was the example of Ceylon which made it possible for the peoples of Malaya, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanganyika, and many other countries of the British colonial Empire to win their independence in their turn without revolution and without a breach of friendly relations.” Ibid.

[2] W. Howard Wriggins, Ceylon: Dilemmas of a New Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), p.124. Cf. also Hector Ahhayawardhana, Categories of Left Thinking in Ceylon, Community, Pamphlet no.4, 4 Miscellany (1963), pp.31-57.

[3] Marshall K. Singer, The Emerging Elite: A Study of Political Leadership in Ceylon (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1964), p.45

[4] E.F.C. Ludowyk, The Modern History of Ceylon (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, ig66), pp.176-77, 187.

[5] G.C. Mendis, Ceylon Today and Yesterday: Main Currents of Ceylon History (Colombo: Associated Newspapers of Ceylon, Ltd., 1957), p.86.

[6] E.F.C. Ludowyk, The Story of Ceylon (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1962), p.245.

[7] Ibid., p.246. According to I.D.S. Weerawardana’s Government and Politics in Ceylon, 1931-1946 (Colombo: Ceylon Research Association, 1951), p.12: “The Ceylon National Congress in 1927 had roughly about 7,000 members including all branch associations.”

[8] Leslie Goonewardene, A Short History of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Maradana: Gunaratne and Co., 1960), p.1. Written in connection with the twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations of the party the text of the brochure has been ratified by a special committee composed of N.M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, Edmund Samarakkody, Doric de Souza, and P.B. Tampoe.

[9] S.A. Pakeman, Ceylon (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964), p.125.

[10] Ludowyk, The Story of Ceylon, p.243.

[11] Weerawardana, op. cit., p.12.

[12] N.S.C. Kuruppu, A History of the Working Class Movement in Ceylon: Part III, The Growth of Trade Unionism and Political Activity, 1918-1935, Young Socialist, Number 4, January-March 1962, pp.201-5.

[13] Ibid., p.203. The term “epicenter of Ceylon’s revolution” was used by Edmund Samarakkody M.P. at his lecture to the students of the University of Ceylon early in 1964, which I attended.

[14] Ibid., p.204.

[15] W.P.N. de Silva, Industrial Law and Relations in Ceylon: An Outline of the History, the Institutions and the Labour Laws (Colombo: K.V.G. de Silva & Sons, 1964), p.26.

[16] Kuruppu, op. cit., p.205.

[17] Sir W. Ivor Jennings, The Economy of Ceylon (London: Oxford University Press, 1948), p.42. According to Ceylon’s Blue Book of 1938, quoted by Sir Ivor, the values of tea, rubber, and coconut-product exports fell down in 1932 to the following figures, as compared with the values of exports in 1927 respectively: tea – Rupees 107,662,702 (Rs. 293,691,876); rubber – Rs. 13,232,696 (Rs. 119,174,347) ; coconut products – Rs. 35,050,547 (Rs. 77,048,547).

[18] Denzil Peiris, 1956 and After: Background to Parties and Politics in Ceyion Today (printed at The Associated Newspaper of Ceylon, Ltd., Lake House, Colombo, and published by Denzil Peiris at 379, Nawala Road, Rajagiriya-March, 1958), p.15.

[19] The leading economic historian of Ceylon, Dr. Ian H. Vandendriesen, admits in his article Some Trends in the Economic History of Ceylon in the ’Modern’ Period, The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, III (1960), pp.1-17, that: “The Ceylon of 1900, with its roads and railways; its commercial agriculture; its growing money economy; its new classes; its political movement and its changing social and economic values, was thus almost as far removed from the Ceylon of a thousand years earlier. The new forces set in motion by the coming of capitalism had been at work for a mere seventy years, yet they had in that short time broken the fetters which had for so long trammelled economic progress ...” This sober conclusion of Dr. Vandendriesen, who was himself once an active member of the Communist Party, differs from the superficial condemnation of the British role by a Soviet historian, S.V. Pokroskii, whose Manoeuvres of British Imperialism in Ceylon (Bombay: People’s Publishing House, 1951), p.2 categorically states that “The British colonisers showed entirely no care for the urgent needs of the population.” Such an oversimplified assessment completely overlooks the existence of the best concrete highway network in Asia, the second highest literacy rates, and one of the finest health systems, all established in Ceylon under British rule. Moreover, this one-sided opinion seems to prevail among Ceylonese Marxists such as Senator Done de Souza, who in my presence told the University students at the public meeting held in Peradeniya late in 1962 that whatever the British accomplished in Ceylon was done with a single motive – to exploit the island’s resources without any benefit for the working masses of the country.

[20] Abhayawardhana, op. cit., p.33.

[21] Calvin A. Woodward, The Trotskyite Movement in Ceylon, World Politics, XIV (1962), pp.308-21.

[22] Cf. Hansard: Debates in the State Council of Ceylon (1936), pp.1390, 1905. On the other hand, I heard Mr. Gunawardena attacking in a November 1963 speech at the University of Ceylon the American political system as the most corrupt in the world.

[23] Harold J. Laski, The State in Theory and Practice (New York: Viking, 1935) pp.100, 123.

[24] John A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (London: George Allen and Unwin. Ltd., 1948), pp.51, 61.

[25] Scholarly criticism of the Hobson-Lenin doctrine of “Investment Imperialism” was written much later by a penetrating Laborite writer John Strachey in his The End of Empire (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1959), with the following conclusive argument: “Lenin’s error was not, then, to have invented a dilemma for capitalism ... What he failed to see was that there was a way out, alternative to imperialism, by means of an adequate and sustained rise in consumption of the non-capitalist nine-tenths of the population ... For the basic economic tendency (namely towards an ever greater maldistribution of income) which Lenin picked out as his prime mover for the whole chain of consequences which he describes, has proved reversible. The last stage capitalisms have shown themselves to be much more flexible and capable of adapting themselves to the political pressure of their wage earners than Lenin allowed for.” Ibid., pp.117-18.

[26] Peiris, op. cit., p.17 claims that the urban leadership of Ceylon’s Left “lacks intimate contact with the masses who reside in the rural areas.” Similar criticism was voiced on behalf of the Fourth International by Ernest Germain in his review of LSSP growth and failure, From Wavering to Capitulation: Peoples Frontism in Ceylon, International Socialist Review, XXV (1964), pp.104-17. It seems to me, however, that Denzil Peiris exaggerates frustration as a motive for the young Ceylonese intellectual, who allegedly was ready to fight British imperialism “because it was the British who were denying him job opportunities ... The roots of the Sama Samajist movement and of the Communist party lay, therefore, in the difficulties which the English-speaking, English-educated intelligentsia had to endure.” Without denying the importance of personal economic motivation, I think this type of farfetched egoistic interpretation does injustice to other more idealistic stimuli of the Leftist groupings in Ceylon.

[27] Goonewardene, Short History of the LSSP, p.2.

[28] Kuruppu, op. cit., p.205.

[29] Goonewardene loc. cit.

[30] Sybil, Birth of the Left Movement: A May Day Reminiscence, Forward: The Progressive Weekly, X (1963), pp.4-10.

[31] Goonewardene, op. cit., pp.2-3, passim.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Cf. Ludowyk, The Story of Ceylon, p.250.

[34] Eileen Wirasekera and Helen De Alwis, Suriya-Mal Day: November 11th, Samasarnajist, I (1937), pp.12, 16.

[35] Cf. N.M. Perera’s speech in the Second State Council of Ceylon on February 5, 1937, Hansard Debates (1937), pp.383-85.

[36] Goonewardene, op. cit., p.3.

[37] Jennings, op. cit., p.68.

[38] Sybil, op. cit., p.3.

[39] Goonewardene, loc. cit.

[40] D.P.R. Gunawardena’s budgetary speech in the State Council on August 28, 1936, Hansard (1936), p.1385.

[41] Sherman Stanley, The Story Behind Tea, The New International, September 1939, pp.266-68.

[42] Jennings, op. cit., p.186.

[43] Quoted by N.M. Perera in his budgetary speech in the State Council on August 19, 1936, Hansard (1936), p.1063.

[44] Sybil, op. cit., p.4.

[45] Henry M. Oliver, Economic Opinion and Policy in Ceylon (Durham: Duke University Press, 1957), p.42.

[46] Stanley Tillakaratne, Communists in Parliament, Forward: The Progressive Weekly, X (1963), pp.9-10.

[47] The State Council was a representative parliamentary institution introduced in Ceylon by the 1931 Donoughmore Reforms to replace the onehundred-year-old Legislative Council. The first State Council was elected by universal franchise in 1931 for a period of five years. It consisted of sixty-one members: fifty elected territorially; eight nominated by the Governor; and three officers of state, namely the chief secretary, the financial secretary, and the legal secretary. The eight nominated members were to represent the communal interests of the Tamil, Burgher, Muslim and European minorities. The structure of the State Council is discussed in detail by the late I.D.S. Weerawardana in Government and Politics in Ceylon (1931-1946) (Colombo: Ceylon Economic Research Association, 1951), and by S. Namasivayam, The Legislatures of Ceylon, 1928-1948 (London: Faber and Faber, 1951).

[48] Doric de Souza, Parliamentary Democracy in Ceylon: Part II, Democracy at Work. Political Developments Since 1931, Young Socialist, no.3 (October-December 1961), 125-39.

[49] Ibid., p.125.

[50] Goonewardene, Short History of the LSSP, p.?.

[51] D.P.R. Gunawardena’s speech on August 28, 1936, at the State Council, Hansard (1936), p.1383.

[52] Some sources give a higher number, namely fifty, of the founding group members, but one should rather rely on the authoritative report of the secretary-general Vernon Gunasekera, submitted to the Second Party Congress in December 1936, which states that the membership rose during the year from twenty to eighty. Cf. The Young Socialist Monthly of the Lanka Students’ Socialist League, 1 (1937), pp.6-7.

[53] Goonewardene, Short History of the LSSP, p.6.

[54] D.P.R. Gunawardena’s statement in the State Council on August 28,1936, Hansard (1936), p.1384. The official Sinhalest name of the party being often misspelled by various authors, it may be worthwhile to quote the anger of the same speaker when he repudiated “the flippant and the irresponsible manner in which the Honorable Minister spoke of the party ... ’Sama Samaj something’ ... the name of my party is ’The Lanka Sama Samaja Party.’” Ibid.

[55] Cf. I. Milton Sacks, Marxism in Vietnam, in Frank N. Trager, ed., Marxism in South East Asia: A Study of Four Countries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959), pp.102-90. Although when I interviewed Philip Gunawardena in November 1963 he maintained that he had been among the first Marxist signatories of an appeal addressed to Leon Trotsky, then exiled on the Turkish island of Prinkipo in the Bosphorus, to form a new Communist International independent of the Kremlin, such a document is not mentioned in Isaac Deutscher’s The Prophet Outcast, 1929-1940, nor is it listed in George Fisher’s A Guide to the Trotsky Archive (the Houghton Library’s so-called “open collection” of Trotsky’s writings and correspondence).

[56] Gunawardene, in Hansard (1936), pp.1384-85.

[57] This opinion was recently supported by the Fourth International critic Ernest Germain in his article From wavering to Capitulation, op. cit., p.106: “Colvin R. de Silva and Leslie Goonewardene were brilliant Marxist thinkers who have written some of the best revolutionary pamphlets in South east [sic] Asia.”

[58] I had a chance in 1963 to discuss at length with Dr. de Silva his political opponents, including the pro-Moscow Communists, who made frequent allegations that Ceylonese Trotskyites like himself could never be really sincere in their espousal of proletarian causes because their constant accumulation of private property reinforced their bourgeois attachment to the good things of life. I was amused to hear the following retort, “Sure, some of us are fairly rich but that is why no one, including His Excellency, the Russian Ambassador, could ever bully us.”

[59] Birth of New Socialist Party, Ceylon Daily News, December 23, 1935, quoted in Forward: The Progressive Weekly, X (1963).

[60] Bryce Ryan, Caste in Modern Ceylon: The Sinhalese System in Transition (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), p.19.

[61] Birth of New Socialist Party, loc. cit.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Vernon Gunasekera and M.G. Mendis, Secretaries’ Report, Samasamajist (1937), pp.13-23. The text of the Application for Membership reads as follows:

do hereby affirm that I am a Socialist and that I shall participate in the activities directed towards achieving the aims and objects of the LANKA SAMA SAMAJA PARTY.
(sgd)__________________ I enclose Re. 1—or cts 25 subscription for the month of____________

[64] Germain, op. cit., p.104.

[65] Goonewardene, Short History of the LSSP, p.5.

[66] Colvin R. de Silva, First Years Achievement: Opposition Smashed, Samasamajist (1937). p.7.

[67] Goonewardene, loc. cit.

[68] Hansard (1939), p.1833.

Chapter 2

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