Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 4


Trotskyism in Sri Lanka

Yodage Ranjith Amarasinghe
Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics: A Study of Trotskyism in Sri Lanka
Social Scientists’ Association, Colombo 1998, pp. 341

Regi Siriwardena
Working Underground: The LSSP in Wartime, A Memoir of Happenings and Personalities
International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo 1999, pp. 75

SEVERAL full-length articles that have recently appeared in the popular press in Sri Lanka testify to the growing interest in the history of that country’s Trotskyist movement. Nobody is better qualified to respond to it with an overall treatment than the author of our first book, some of whose preliminary results appeared in a previous issue of this magazine (Volume 6, no. 4, pp. 100–12 and 180–208). But here for the first time is a full analysis of the party’s significance in the country’s overall development, and of the LSSP’s place within it. There are, inevitably, some omissions. The book obviously went to press before the appearance of Wesley Muthiah and Sydney Wanasinghe’s two documentary collections (The Bracegirdle Affair and Britain, World War Two, and the Sama Samajists), and the special issue of our magazine, but apart from the absence of Edmund Samarakkody’s classic analysis in Spartacist (no. 22, Winter 1973–74), the documentation of the party’s history is admirable throughout. A coherent picture is given of the basis of the party’s support, its policy during the major turning points of the island’s history, its adaptation to parliamentary politics, and the tension set up between this and its stated ideology and aims. The present unhappy situation in Sri Lanka cannot at all be understood without reading it.

At the same time, it has to be said that it suffers from the limitations of its academic origins, a PhD submitted from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies to the University of London in 1974. Its analysis is therefore couched in terms of the model worked out for ‘Asian radical parties’ by Franda, John Kautsky and Scalapino (pp. 310, 313–4), which displays no more than a rudimentary knowledge of Trotskyism in general, or in Asia in particular. And it is precisely in this area that its limitations emerge, for it is not possible to make sense of an internationalist party without a clear understanding of its ideological and organisational parallels and links abroad.

Thus the International Executive Committee is first identified with the United Secretariat as a whole (p. 196), and then even with the International Committee (pp. 262–3). Nor is there any account of the LSSP’s conciliatory rôle during the split between the International Secretariat and the International Committee in 1953. Amarasinghe’s perplexity when dealing with the ‘T’ group shows that he is clearly unacquainted with the practice of creating broad working-class parties around a Marxist core (pp. 213–21), precisely the method recommended by Marx himself (cf. What Next?, no. 9, 1998, pp. 3–5; Workers Fight, Winter 1998–99). The discussion of the party’s attitude towards the nationalist movement on pp. 218–20 shows no acquaintance with the debates on the Anti-Imperialist United Front, either in the Comintern to begin with or among the Trotskyists afterwards. And in view of the facts that Bracegirdle had previously been the acting secretary of a Stalinist front organisation in Australia (p. 24), and joined the Communist Party when he got back to London, where he was closely associated with S.A. Wickremasinghe (p. 224), it is a matter for regret that so little consideration is given to the opinion of Philip Gunawardena, Vernon Gunasekera and Edmund Samarakkody that Bracegirdle had been sent to bring the Ceylonese party into line with the Comintern (p. 45, n97, p2. 24, n45, p. 270).

So little is generally known of the histories of Cuba, Chile, Bolivia or the Argentine that Amarasinghe might well be forgiven such statements as that the LSSP is ‘unique in being a Trotskyist party with much influence, outside the confines of western Europe’ (p. 1), but it is less excusable when the predominance of Trotskyism over Stalinism in Sri Lanka is described as ‘the only instance in the whole of Asia’ (pp. 2, 6; cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 3, no. 2). Amarasinghe’s knowledge of the movement in Vietnam is encapsulated in the remark that ‘there were a handful of Trotskyist supporters among the radical intellectuals in some Asian countries, particularly in the French colonial territories, in the 1930s … It has also been claimed that Trotskyist groups existed in Indo-China as well. It is not possible to discard these claims off-hand, but it can be said that in none of these countries did a noteworthy Trotskyist movement exist.’ (p. 240) It is thus unfortunate that he appears to be unaware of Stelio Marchese’s argument (Storia e Politica, no. 4, December 1977, pp. 664–83) that some of the influence of Trotskyism among the working classes of both Sri Lanka and Vietnam might be accounted for by the dialectical ferment previously laid down by Buddhism, for whilst admitting that ‘the LSSP never became successful in winning over more than a handful of Buddhist monks’ (p. 180), he does note that that there was ‘a significant positive correlation of the Marxist vote with Sinhalese and Buddhist populations’ (p. 290).

More serious is Amarasinghe’s ignorance of the party’s ideological roots in Britain, in part due to the neglect of oral evidence until quite recently in academic circles. Assuming that Trotskyism here ‘was not to develop to any significant proportion until the late 1930s’, and that ‘most of the students who came to lead the LSSP had left England by 1933 or 1934’ (p. 241), he believes that ‘there is evidence pointing to various nationalist and orthodox Communist influences on the young students, who later became founders of the LSSP, yet not to any Trotskyist influences as such’ (p. 241; repeated on p. 242). The most he is willing to concede is that Philip’s move towards Trotskyism ‘may have been due to the influences he received while in the United States and Britain’ (p. 243). He therefore mentions Philip’s contacts with Palme Dutt, Harry Pollitt and Krishna Menon, but not his and Colvin’s contacts with Aggarwalla, Frank Ridley or Reg Groves during the same period (p. 11). A stroll from the LSE Library round the corner to Frank Ridley’s flat in Herbrand Street, or a chat with Reg Groves in Wandsworth, would soon have put him right on Philip’s activity as a Trotskyist within the Communist Party here. If this failed to convince him, even though the very detailed secret service reports now on deposit in the British Library were not open to inspection while he was over here, Amarasinghe could still have found out from Philip’s daughter how he had been stopped in Bulgaria on a journey to see Trotsky in Prinkipo (Lakmali Gunawardena, Philip: The Early Years, March 1996, pp. 16–17).

Lack of acquaintance with the history of the British movement (which Amarasinghe appears to think was called the Revolutionary Communist League in 1939 [p. 251]), badly affects his discussion of the covert Trotskyism of the leadership of the early LSSP. Whilst he does admit that the ‘T’ group did exist (p. 224), he carries on a vigorous polemic against Lerski’s view that the inner core of the LSSP was Trotskyist from the very beginning (pp. 217–9), claiming that ‘the programme of the LSSP during the first few years of its existence reflects nothing more than moderate welfare-socialism which falls far short of revolutionary Trotskyism’ (p. 218), and that the resolution of December 1939 ‘marks the beginning of the take-over of the LSSP by the tendency opposing the Third International’ (p. 225). When we recall Marx’s methods of building a working-class party, and the theory of the Anti-Imperialist United Front mentioned above, his contention that ‘it would be difficult to maintain the view that the party itself followed a Trotskyist policy in its early years’ (p. 217) falls to the ground. He does makes up for it by a good discussion of how the party strengthened its links with the Fourth International during the Second World War (pp. 249–53), but even here, whilst admitting that ‘it is possible that the British Trotskyist group … was instrumental in bringing the LSSP and SWP [Socialist Workers Party] closer to each other’ (p. 251), he does not appear to know of the invaluable services rendered to it by Workers International League members in the armed forces such as Douglas Garbutt and Fred Bunby. Nor does he mention the deeper immersion of the party’s leaders in Trotskyist literature at this time which resulted in Colvin’s duplicated version of Harold Isaac’s book on China put out during the war, his Whither the Soviet Union?, and Leslie’s summary of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and study of C.L.R. James’ World Revolution (later published over the pseudonym of K. Tilak in Bombay).

So once again we are brought face to face with one of the major problems of Trotskyist historiography: no matter how painstaking may be our examination in a particular country (and this book is a splendid example of it), without a full investigation of the complicated dynamic of the relationship between that and the rest of the international movement, the full richness of the picture will continue to elude us.

Our second book, whilst no less interesting, is of a very different character. It is a series of personal memories from the time of the Second World War, which, ‘although no longer a Trotskyist … nor a Marxist of any persuasion today’ (p. x), the writer feels he has to justify on the grounds that an ‘accident of excessive and undesired longevity’ has left him ‘the last survivor of certain events who can speak of them with direct, first-hand knowledge’ (p. viii). No such excuse is needed, for his narrative is vivid and true to life, and bears the stamp of honesty throughout. His adventures in illegality included fraternising with British soldiers, two of whom were converted to Trotskyism (p. 43), until he was finally betrayed to the authorities along with Edmund and the others by the operator of their underground printshop (pp. 55–9). His literary skill sketches out some very fine pen portraits of Lorensz Perera (pp. 18–20), Doric de Souza (pp. 21–5), Colvin R. de Silva (pp. 44–5) and Philip Gunawardena (pp. 48–50).

He is also the first modern writer on the history of the LSSP to give Phillip his real due in the development of the party at this time: ‘I am convinced that it was mainly Philip, who had then an enormous intellectual ascendancy over the party, as the most deeply read Marxist and most experienced political activist … who pushed the party into that clean break with Stalinism’ (p. 10; cf. p. 48).

Whilst making it clear that he does not intend to compete with Amarasinghe’s account (pp. viii––ix), he does offer two interesting corrections to it. He disagrees that the famous jailbreak of the LSSP leaders in 1942 was largely the work of Robert Gunawardena, for it was planned by the whole of the party’s Central Committee (p. 43; Amarasinghe, p. 57), and he places Philip’s accusation that Doric was a police spy during the first secret Central Committee meeting after their escape in May 1942, and not during the public polemic of 1945 (pp. 51–4; Amarasinghe, p. 69, and n69, p. 87).

The writer also has some interesting theories of his own on the development of the party during the time he was a member, which he describes as ‘the years when the party was transformed from the open, radical mass party it had been before the war to a committedly Trotskyist party with a cadre organisation’ (p. viii). He believes that this was partly due to the exclusion of the party’s working-class supporters from its theoretical discussions, which were conducted in English, but also because ‘the semi-legality, and later the complete illegality, into which the wartime colonial state forced the LSSP certainly accelerated the party’s movement away from the loose, open, radical mass party it had been before the war’ (p. 34). For once legality returned, along with independence, ‘the vanguard party had no viability once the LSSP moved into the period of open mass politics’ (p. 75). He even hints that if Philip, who continued to feel the need to make a wider appeal long after he had left the Trotskyists, had retained his ascendancy in the party, this would never have happened, for as early as 1942 he was already interested in the difference between Rosa Luxemburg’s concept of party organisation and that of Lenin (pp. 49–50).

These are only two of the books to emerge from the present keen interest in Sri Lanka’s revolutionary past. We at Revolutionary History can take pride if the publication of Blows Against the Empire has made any contribution to sparking it off.

Al Richardson

This review also appeared under the heading of Full Analysis of the Party’s Significance in the Country’s Overall Development, in The Island (Sri Lanka), 3 May 2000.

Updated by ETOL: 5.10.2011