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International Socialism, Autumn 1964


Editorial 5

Ceylon: Hunting with the Hounds


From International Socialism, No.18, Autumn 1964, pp.5-6.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Comparisons should not be pushed too far, but there are striking similarities between the current situations in Italy and Ceylon. For different reasons, both face a windy inflation of crisis proportions, generating simultaneously a sharp challenge from labour (which, unless it produces a revolution, helps to hump up the inflation even further) and a series of balance of payments disasters. In both cases, the proponents of sound finance demand immediately that prices and profits be allowed to remain stable by holding down wages – workers must alone bear in their day-to-day standard of living the full cost of inflation.

In both, the tactic offered is the bringing in of the Left to do the Government’s dirty work on the assumption that punishment inflicted by a member of the left will not be thought of a punishment – let a trade unionist or socialist be the Minister of Labour or Finance; let him be the strike breaker, turn out the troops, lead the way to an ‘agreed’ wage freeze. In Italy, the results are clear, and all power to the anti-coalitionists – the PSIUP; in Ceylon, the issues are more complex, but the principle is the same.

Consider the advantages to Mrs Bandaranaike. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) , a classical coalition of rural conservatives and urban radicals, only secured the Government in the 1960 election through its alliance with the parties of the subsequently formed United Left Front (ULF); ULF self-denial allowed the SLFP to win thirty or forty marginal seats that would otherwise have probably gone to the rural and RIGHT-WING United National Party (the SLFP polled1,143,290 votes and won 30 seats). Since then, violence and inflation destroyed whatever unanimity once existed between Government and the ULF – to survive, the ULF has had to represent fully the fierce opposition of labour to the Government’s failure to hold the price line. The result has been a rash of strikes culminating in the Emergency in march and the proroguing of Parliament for three months to safeguard the Government from imminent defeat in the House of Representatives. In terms of pure party politics, Mrs. Bandaranaike urgently needed allies if her Government was to survive through to the General Election of 1965, and those allies would have to seem leftist if she was to retain urban loyalties.

Economically, her need was even greater. Sooner or later, wages and salaries will have to be faced. The rice subsidy, now running at a quarter of the Budget, will have to be cut. Not that this will solve the problem, since Ceylon’s payments crisis is primarily a product of the world market – the declining prices and revenue of her exports (tea, rubber, coconuts) along with an astonishing rise in the price of her imports (notably, sugar). Efforts to Ceylonise or nationalise private business (nationalisation of petroleum outlets and insurance, two of the most profitable enterprises in Ceylon was completed on 1 January) have frightened off foreign capital and aid (notably American and West German), dried up the sources of Government borrowing so that the Government has freely created cash to bribe its way to domestic stability, with a commensurate expansion in the money supply, thus adding inflation to inflation. Strict import restrictions only help to inflate the prices of formerly imported consumer goods. A drastic strike in Colombo port produced a backlog of 100,000 tons, prompting foreign shippers to double freight charges for shipment to Ceylon, a further heavy strain on costs. By January, the exchange reserves were down to an all-time low, and a former IMF loan was just coming up for repayment. With an estimated record of 800,000 unemployed, with white-collar workers chafing, with the UNP advancing both in last September’s Colombo municipal elections (the key urban index) and by-elections last winter, the drastic nature of the spring Emergency can be understood, as well as the Government’s active attempts to divert attention to the non-Sinhalese as the cause of all troubles (these are mainly Tamils, 700,000 of whom have been refused registration as Ceylonese citizens).

And if there is dirty work to be done, who better to do it than a leftist? The Trotskyist trio (Perera, Moonesinghe, Goonewardena) that Mrs. Bandaranaike has gobbled up, have at one remove solved a series of Government headaches – they have shored up the Government majority, prepared for a repetition next year of the alliance that won it the 1960 election, split irrevocably the only serious left opposition (the ULF), and purchased a small breather from the harrying tactics of the trade unions commanded by the Lanaka Sama Samaja party (LSSP), the main element of the ULF, and Perera’s Party). Only last March, the LSSP defied the Emergency to hold a mass trade union demonstration to demand more pay (the now dead ‘Twenty-One Points’), but now the three LSSP leaders troop to a Buddhist temple to say prayers and party propagandists stress the blood links between Perea and Moonesinghe and popular Buddhist figures. The ULF remains a ruin, five factions instead of three parties – two LSSP fragments (the pro- and anti-coalition factions), the literally national-socialist MEP, and the two Communist splinters (Moscow and Peking).

The cost is very high. What are the rewards, apart from the Ministry of Finance for Perera? The Fourteen Point Programme agreed by the Government and the LSSP as the basis for the Coalition is just a face-saver for the left and includes nothing that the Government had not already planned or which can be achieved in the short stretch remaining to this parliament. Policy since the Coalition began remains the same – the attack on the Tamils and Indians continues (no universal brotherhood of man, let alone of the working class, here). The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce has exchanged compliments with the new Finance Minster; Perera has promised to tough [?] the implementation of the Plan through monthly departmental checks, to consult the trade unions, to create ‘Soviets’, or rather committees of trade unionists, to ‘advise’ the Government, a suggestion of how far the revolution is becoming merely verbal. Goonewardena is gunning for racketeers among public works contractors, and Moonesinghe has introduced a new welfare and pay structure for Colombo dockers to try and get the accumulated tonnage moving. Ceylonisation in industry and land ownership proceeds as before and the Government, as promised before the Coalition, will extend control and ownership over the import-export trade; due place has been guaranteed to Buddhism as the majority religion, and to Singhalese (opposed firmly by the Tamils) as the majority language. Most recently, Perera’s long-awaited budget has declared a moratorium on all profit, dividend and no [?] interest payments abroad for one year. Given that much of this was coming anyway, this is mild stuff – no wonder that, despite all earlier grumbling, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s right-wing has settled down in the new Cabinet with three Trotskyists without a murmur – Perera will pull all their chestnuts out of the fire.

The LSSP Ministers promise radical efficiency within Ceylon’s mobile status quo, and certain verbal changes along corporatist lines. Anti-foreignism can be substituted for anti-capitalism – Tamils are fair game for cheap radicals – but Ceylon is not 1917 Russia or even 1962 Algeria, and Mrs. Bandaranaike is neither Lenin not Kerensky: tears and all, she is tougher and wilier than most, and needs more than three Trotskyists to shove her into socialism. Meanwhile, the pro-Peking Communists will have a field day in the trade unions, both pulling in and outdistancing the anti-coalition Trotskyists to become the sole mouthpiece for urban labour – and Perera will be left to be the strike breaker. The cost to the Ceylonese left is terrifyingly and tragically high, and for little more than Perera’s ambition or tiredness. But who now will cry ‘havoc!’ when Bandaranaike lets slip the dogs of war?

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