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George Jan Lerski

Origins Of Trotskyism In Ceylon


My close contacts with Trotskyists, the truest Marxists of our century, date back to pre-World War II days when I was chairman of the Polish Social Democratic Youth (PMSD) in Lwów, Poland. In spite of neo-Thomistic ideological inclinations, I believed, in those “gathering-storm” days, in the political efficacy of a large front of young democrats and radical liberals arrayed against German Nazism, Russian Stalinism, and domestic semitotalitarianism. Until the Russian occupation we were able to shelter several Polish and Jewish Trotskyites; they were subsequently deported by the Soviet NKVD in 1939-40. Those few who survived the Russian prisons and labor camps and returned to post-war satellite Poland soon encountered new obstacles and are still persecuted by the communist regime. Today, the United States and the faraway island of Ceylon are the only remaining legal strongholds of the ill-conceived Fourth International of Leon Trotsky.

The unique role of Ceylon’s Equality Party (LSSP) as the official opposition for more than thirty years of the island’s recent history has fascinated me ever since my first teaching assignment in Asia. After three worthwhile years’ experience with Japanese leftists and an equally rewarding two years with Pakistani students, I spent two years at the University of Ceylon on the exquisite Peradeniya campus. I am sincerely grateful to the late Dr. Robert Blum, America’s leading expert on Asian affairs, for submitting my candidacy to the University as Visiting Professor of Political Science. The position required American, European, and Asian teaching experience plus familiarity with Marxist theory and practice. To some extent I could perhaps satisfy each of the demands of the project principals, but my strongest asset, I still suspect, proved to be the similarity of my name with that of the late Harold Laski, the alpha and omega of all the leftists in the former British Empire!

The first steps toward a study of the origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon proved to be as difficult as the first teaching duties, for it was soon discovered that I was neither a relative nor even a disciple of Professor Laski. Forward, the communist weekly, published, upon my arrival, an attack upon those responsible for my appointment, namely, Sir Nicholas Attygalle, Vice-Chancellor of the university, and Dr. Felix Jayasuriya, Acting Head of the Department of Economics. For the first and hopefully last time in my life I was branded a “Yankee imperialist.” To incite xenophobic feelings, the organ of the Communist Party wrote: “In order to clear the way for the full-scale Americanisation of political science teaching in the university, all the Ceylonese lecturers in this subject have been shunted off to other fields and Mr. Lerski, a Polish refugee turned U.S. citizen, placed in charge.” [1]

Rightist politicians on the campus also tried at the beginning to limit my influence. Students who opted for a specialty in political science under my academic supervision were discouraged by the nationalist conspiracy, an attempt to protect the pristine Sinhalese-Buddhist character of the youngsters from any foreign indoctrination. However, eight enterprising students became rather curious to meet the new teacher and decided to intervene with the Dean of Arts, Dr. Passé. The latter, suspicious of some leftist plot, was anything but encouraging, but he could not resist the persistence of Wiswa Warnapala (an active communist), who put the whole problem in a nutshell. When asked by the Dean why he wanted to major in political science, he answered, “For the simple reason, Sir, that I want to become a politician.” Professor Passé gave up in good spirit and authorized the special courses in government, whereupon the witty Wiswa Warnapala abandoned, at least for the time being, his political ambitions for an academic career, including continuation of my courses in political theory and graduate studies in the United States. It was this brilliant son of a peasant family who sarcastically defined the Fourth International as being composed of four old bearded Russian Jews who recommend, from a Montparnasse Café in Paris, permanent revolution to the scions of the Ceylonese plantocracy.

Actually, the Trotskyite movement in Ceylon did grow from the efforts of a group of young London educated radicals to become a formidable political movement with all the paraphernalia of a regular party. It was perhaps the only Trotskyist organization in the world to become a political party sensu stricto, that is, one which was able to exercise a meaningful influence on the whole national life of a developing country. No other Trotskyite group was ever more than a tiny propaganda sect of professional and usually frustrated revolutionaries. But Professor Robert C. Tucker, in his otherwise excellent exposition of the current crisis of Marxism, Deradicalization of Marxist Movements, overlooks the exceptional position of the LSSP: “There seems to be an inverse relation between a radical movement’s organizational strength and the preservation of its radicalism. Radical movements that remain small sectarian groups on the fringe of society are relatively impervious to deradicalization; the history of twentieth century Trotskyism furnishes numerous illustrations. [2]

This generalization obviously does not hold for Ceylon, where the Trotskyist movement grew into a remarkable political party, seminal in its bold ideas and a pioneer in the struggle for the independence of its country. Neither can I understand Professor Scalapino’s similar omission in his perceptive introduction to a recent book, The Communist Revolution in Asia. Admitting at the outset that “Asian communism began as an intellectual movement,” he then stresses that “At no point has communism represented the dominant political trend among the modern Asian intelligentsia, except when Marxian doctrines have been imposed by the state fiat.” [3] Dr. Scalapino overlooks the powerful appeal which Marxism-Leninism in its Trotskyite form had until recently to the educated young Ceylonese.

The early history of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party bears testimony to even more unique aspects of Ceylon’s Left. It was, after all (as indicated to me by a leading American authority on Trotskyism, Max Shachtman) the only revolutionary nationalist movement in Asia to be founded by a combination of followers of both Stalinism and Trotskyism. This relatively harmonious combination continued in Ceylon until the end of 1939, even though the irreconcilability of the Trotskyists and the Stalinists had been proclaimed throughout the world and caused the formation of the Fourth International. This remarkable phenomenon of coexistence can be explained by a number of reasons, one of them being the priority of the national struggle against the British Raj and its indigenous Ceylonese servants, and another the hair-splitting ideological differences between various sects of Russian communists in the Soviet Union or in exile.

Close friendship and mutual respect developed among the LSSP’s original leaders in the early years of the Left rebellion in Ceylon. It helped to cement the internal unity of the movement until it was broken by the external pressures of the Comintern with its role of pushing forward Moscow’s interests above those of the immediate local needs of Ceylon’s independence movement. Perhaps the most important cause of the fairly long period of Trotskyist-Stalinist cooperation was that the “T” (for Trotskyist) center within the party, though not unaware of the Stalinist danger, felt sure enough of its control of the movement to tolerate the small minority of Moscow-oriented communists in the formation of a common front against British imperialism. The impact of Leon Trotsky’s uncompromising challenge to Stalin was felt only after 1938, when his The Revolution Betrayed attack on the Soviet establishment became well-known among the rank and file of the LSSP.

It was in the unfulfilled drive toward permanent revolution that the final break between the small communist faction and the Trotskyite majority took place. To accomplish its political goal the LSSP became, unlike any other Trotskyist group in the world, a real political party with affiliated and loyal trade unions. It strived to represent faithfully the interests of the working classes of both the Sinhalese and the Tamil nationalities and sought general support from all lower-income Ceylonese regardless of their original race, caste, language, or religion. As such it was bound to confront sooner or later the practical question of participation in the island’s parliament, and ultimately perhaps even in the central government. There can be no serious opposition party without that ultimate goal. The stand of Leon Trotsky, however, and of all his partisans, was the same as that of the traditional communist movements, and even of the pre-World War I left-wing socialists: it was one of opposition, in principle, to the entry of revolutionary party representatives into a coalition government with the bourgeois majority. Until the summer of 1964, the LSSP resisted temptation, hoping perhaps that a victory was still feasible within the constitutional framework, without a need for sharing the spoils with the non-Marxist parties.

Gradually, after a series of futile attempts to mobilize the United Left Front, the revolutionary fervor evaporated, the way of legality being the only way left for participation in the government of the island. Such a fundamental compromise on the part of the pragmatically oriented mainstream of the LSSP marked the turning point in the long striving for Trotskyite government in Ceylon. It was bound to happen in view of the increased nationalist consciousness on the part of the Sinhalese-educated and Buddhist-oriented lower middle class and its growing impact on the peasant masses of independent Ceylon.

A number of attempts to bridge the theoretical gap between the other-wordly Theravada Buddhism and the dialectic materialism of Marxism-Leninism did not produce the expected results; the common denominator between the Buddhist and Marxist factions – its anti-Western xenophobia – was not sufficient when confronted with the irreconcilable doctrines of Lord Buddha and Leon Trotsky. The attitude of compromise on the part of some ambitious LSSP leaders proved, in the 1965 general elections, to arouse suspicions with both the faithful followers of Marx and the Buddhist-Sinhalese and Tamil-Hindu electorates.

The purpose of this monograph is to present the definitive history of the Ceylon left movement during its first ten years of growth, without much post factum philosophic analysis. I do not hide the fact that I was highly impressed by the political courage and intellectual integrity of these Asian followers of early Marx, the Karl Marx of the Communist Manifesto, but I am aware that one cannot remain the disciple of young Marx forever; after all, there was a great change in Marx himself between his views in 1848 and those before his death in 1883. I could not fail to be somewhat sympathetic with the frustration of my Ceylonese students of this 1962-64 period in their expectations for a better world of economic justice and social equality. It is a privilege for any teacher to see the confrontation of his own political philosophy with the quite justified desires of his pupils, so that he can sometimes attempt to see their serious problems through their eyes. Partly because of my great interest in a better future for my students I decided to concentrate on the earlier part of the turbulent history of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, a period of its history which should give the young Ceylonese good cause for national pride. I prefer this constructive approach to the painstaking search for the innumerable causes of the later splits, factionalism, and personal feuds, or to tracing foreign penetration by all kinds of intelligence operators into a radical movement which deserves a respectful assessment of its accomplishments in Ceylon’s struggle for independence and democracy. Hence the scope of this study is limited to a thoroughly documented research effort: it is based almost entirely on primary sources, with annual party platforms, specific resolutions, and pertinent communications of Leon Trotsky often reproduced in extenso; it is aimed at covering the initial period of LSSP growth; and it ends with the 1942 (temporary) annihilation of the movement by the wartime British allies of Stalin’s Russia.

Aware of Ceylonese sensitivity and the highly explosive topic of this research, I had slowly to gain the confidence of those numerous LSSP leaders, former and present, whom it was necessary to interview or from whom could be acquired both published and unpublished materials. In any serious research endeavor one is bound to build up gradually a growing circle of understanding friends and assistants. On the basis of my own research strategy, I must take exception to the views expressed by two outstanding American political scientists, Professors Harold D. Lasswell and Daniel Lerner, who in their interesting introduction to Marshall R. Singer’s The Emerging Elite: A Study of Political Leadership in Ceylon, claim that the methods of Dr. Singer’s data collection provide “a useful lesson to young researchers faced with hard field conditions.” The two “gurus” accept the author’s statement that: “It was not possible to obtain data on the Ceylonese elites by the usual methods of interviewing individuals or of consulting biographical dictionaries ... While it is true that every researcher can have his ’man in Ceylon,’ nevertheless this solution is a useful example of ingenuity applied to the need to know.” [4]

While Professor Singer’s field research into caste structure may have been more sensitive than my historical interest in the origins of Ceylonese Trotskyism, I am inclined to question his using an anonymous “informant in Colombo.” This method resembles more the cloak and dagger methods of secret agents than the patient attempt to become acquainted, to understand, and if possible to befriend a large number (certainly more than one) of well-informed, authentic and identified local authorities. The fact that the three past holders of the office of LSSP Secretary General, Messrs. Vernon Gunasekera, Jack C.T. Kotelawala, and Leslie Goonewardene, willingly gave this author ample oral and written information and a chance even to dig in their private archives may prove sufficient to back up my disagreement with the above quoted opinion of these leading American scholars.

I am also much obliged to Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, long time President of the LSSP, Mrs. Selina Perera, Dean Hilary De S. Gunasekera, and Mr. Ameradassa Fernando for either expressing their verbal opinions or providing me with most useful press materials, pamphlets, leaflets, etc. Many of my faculty colleagues and some of the students gave me their helpful advice in the amassing and interpreting of the material for this study. I would particularly like to mention the friendly assistance of Dr. A.J. Wilson, Mr. H.A.I. Goonetilleke, Dr. W. Pachow, Dr. Ian Vandendriesen, and Mr. Wiswa Warnapala. The officers in charge of the Ceylonese National Archives were kind enough to allow my study of the pre-World War II Ceylonese press.

Having collected more material than is probably available on that topic in any place in the world, including Ceylon, I did the remainder of my research in the United States, where, again, I met with the cooperative understanding of former and present Trotskyite leaders of the Socialist Workers Party. In particular I am grateful to their veteran leader, Mr. James P. Cannon, Trotsky’s most trusted old friend in America, for his willingness to share with me both his personal views and his copies of unpublished correspondence pertaining to Ceylon’s Left. Mr. Tom Kerry, editor of the International Socialist Review, and his wife, Karolyn Kerry, were of great help in reconstructing the long story of the relations between the Socialist Workers Party and the LSSP, including the latest developments within the Fourth International with regard to the so-called “Peoples’ Frontism in Ceylon.” Mr. Max Shachtman shared with me his rich knowledge concerning Trotsky’s views and operations in Asia.

I was less fortunate with my research endeavors at Harvard. The library has divided Trotsky’s archives into open and closed sections. The open section is accessible to students at Houghton Library and is well catalogued, but the most important materials are, due to a strange legal arrangement, closed to all but one scholar, namely, the maverick Marxist, the late Isaac Deutscher, the author of an excellent three-volume biography of his onetime ideological master. In the preface to his last volume, The Prophet Outcast; Trotsky: 1929-1940, he says: “The strange and moving tale is told here for the first time on the basis of Trotsky’s intimate correspondence with his wife and children, a correspondence to which I have been privileged to obtain unrestricted access. (For this I am indebted to the generosity of the late Natalya Sedova, who two years before her death asked the Librarians of Harvard University to open to me the so-called sealed section of her husband’s archives, the section that by his will was to remain closed till the year 1980.) [5]

Not too happy that the exclusive use of Trotsky’s archives was secured for just one writer, highly qualified as he may have been, I hopefully wrote to Professor Merle Fainsod, keeper of the Trotsky archives, reminding him that he had kindly promised to look into the question of my using that part of the archives that might concern India and Ceylon. The negative answer to this query was given to me by Dr. Fainsod in his office during my January 1965 visit at Harvard. He informed me that he had asked the opinion of the lawyers and on the basis of their advice, no other exception than that for Mr. Deutscher could be allowed. If Harvard maintains this rule, it simply means that until 1981 a research monopoly has been reserved for just one man, a somewhat strange situation at the institution famous for its advocacy of academic freedom, a freedom that has always included not only dissent with establishment but the equally vital freedom of scholarly research.

After leaving Dr. Fainsod’s office, I was fortunate enough to run into Professor John Van Heijenoort of Brandeis University, the trusted personal secretary of Trotsky during his exile in France, Norway, and Mexico. Being knowledgeable about the archival transaction between Trotsky’s widow and Harvard, Professor Van Heijenoort assured me that to the best of his knowledge there is no other documentary evidence of Trotsky’s written contact with the leaders of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party than the correspondence with Mrs. Perera, the copies of which I was later able to acquire through the kindness of James P. Cannon and his secretary, Della Rossa. In addition, Dr. Van Heijenoort, as so many other American, Asian, and European collaborators of Trotsky, showed keen interest in helping me to understand better the political intricacies pertaining to the subject of this work. I am most grateful to him and to all those above mentioned, hoping that by my presentation and interpretation I have not fallen too short of their expectations.

To make this monograph absolutely definitive, one should probably have waited for the opening of the British Colonial Office Archives, which are ruled by the rigid fifty years limitation; it means in this particular case till the year 1992! In the meantime I have tried to use all available secondary and semiprimary sources, such as Hansard. I am fully aware, however, that there still may be some revealing materials hidden in the strictly confidential correspondence between the Secretariat of State for Colonies in London and the two successive governors of Ceylon during the period discussed, namely, Sir Reginald Stubbs and Sir Andrew Caldecott. It is possible, for instance, that secret police reports concerning the behavior of the Trotskyite movement and its leaders in Ceylon, together with political evaluations by the British authorities, may soon add some relevant facts concerning the contemporary motivation of the official British attitude toward their then arch opponents in Ceylon, or they may even disclose the names of possible informants among the Samasamajists, some of whom may well be still alive and in Ceylonese politics.

The last stages of my research were carried on in the scholarly atmosphere of the Hoover Institution on the Stanford campus where I was a research associate and a recipient of a research grant in 1965. I want to take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks to Dr. W. Glenn Campbell, Professor Witold S. Sworakowski, Dr. Peter Duignan, and Dr. Milorad M. Drachkovitch, senior officers of the Institution; and to old personal friends, the late Mr. Richard Wraga, Dr. Stefan T. Possony, Professor Yuan-li Wu, and Mr. Ward Smith. Helpful in actual research at the Hoover Library were Mr. Karol Maichel and the two wonderful lady-librarians, Miss Marie Benton and Mrs. Marina Tinkoff. The Hoover Institution, though short on materials on contemporary South Asia, provides the world’s best facilities for a scholarly exchange of views and research in modern revolutionary movements. I have happily shared with the Institution my primary sources, which were duplicated for the use of any future scholar in this or related subjects. I am very grateful to my Polish friend, Mr. Zbigniew Róiañski, for his disinterested help in the tedious proofreading of my manuscript and to Mrs. Jacqueline Handley of Los Altos for her very conscientious final editing.

The painstaking secretarial work connected with all stages of this monograph has been provided, successively, by the following ladies: Miss Marcelle Perera and Mrs. Helen de Silva in Peradeniya, Ceylon; Miss Yvonne Pierard of San Francisco; Mrs. Ray Martin and Mrs. Esmal McNeilly of Grenada, West Indies; and Miss Goldie Long of the University of San Francisco. I am truly grateful for their kindness and patience. Mr. Richard D. Markel, my graduate student in Asian politics at the University of San Francisco, compiled the index in a most diligent and helpful manner.



[1] Yank at Peradeniya, Forward: The Progressive Weekly, LX (1962).

[2] Robert C. Tucker, The Deradicalization of Marxist Movements, The American Political Science Review, LXI (1967), pp.343-58.

[3] Robert A. Scalapino, Communism in Asia; Toward a Comparative Analysis, in The Communist Revolution in Asia, Robert A. Scalapino, ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965), pp.1-46.

[4] Harold D. Lasswell and Daniel Lester, Introduction, in The Emerging Elite: A Study of Political Leadership in Ceylon, by Marshall R. Singer (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1964), p.x.

[5] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast; Trotsky: I929-1940, (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), p.x.

Chapter 1

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Last updated on 17.10.2003