Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


We Were Making History

Wesley S. Muthiah and Sydney Wanasinghe (eds.)
We Were Making History: Saga of the Hartal of August 1953
Young Socialist Publications, Colombo 2002, pp. 525

THE indefatigable duo, Wesley Muthiah and Sydney Wanasinghe, have produced another impressive tome devoted to legendary episodes in the history of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the official section of the Fourth International in Sri Lanka until its expulsion in 1964. This time they have turned out a 525-page documentary history of the famous Hartal of 12 August 1953. Their earlier monographs included Britain, World War 2 and the Samasamajists (1996) and The Bracegirdle Affair (1998). Entitled We Were Making History, the book is a compilation of contemporary accounts of the massive anti-government protest. Overall, we commend the editors. One has to marvel at the hundreds of hours that must have been spent just retyping all this material.

The left parties in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known) called for the Hartal to protest against the government’s cutbacks, notably the withdrawal of the rice subsidy, the increase in the prices of rice and sugar, the abolition of free lunches in the schools, and the rise in rail fares and postal rates. At the outset, it’s important to clarify the meaning of hartal. The word, borrowed from the Indian independence struggle, is often translated as ‘general strike’. That is not really accurate. A hartal was a form of Gandhian ‘non-cooperation’, a call to boycott normal public activities.

The LSSP tried to forge a united front with the other two left parties, the Ceylon Communist Party (CP) and the VLSSP led by Philip Gunawardena, the one-time leader of the LSSP who had broken away in 1950. But the CP–VLSSP combo imposed unacceptable conditions, namely that the LSSP refrain from criticising Stalinism. As a result, the LSSP and CP–VLSSP went their own ways on 12 August 1953. We Were Making History describes in vivid detail the events and the LSSP’s rôle. The first section of the book consists of an introduction by Vijaya Vidyasagara, a reprint of the LSSP’s 14-point programme, and a parliamentary speech by Dr N.M. Perera on the economic policy of the government. The second section, by far the biggest, reprints contemporary articles drawn from the bourgeois dailies and the LSSP press. The third section, which is the most analytical, gathers selections from several subsequent critiques of the Hartal. The book also reproduces more than two dozen photos, many for the first time.

The Hartal was an enormous success in its own terms. People turned out in the thousands for rallies and processions. Here and there crowds got unruly, and there were deadly clashes with the police. The level of militancy took the left leaders by surprise. The government, on the other hand, was prepared for the worse. The Cabinet of Ministers, led by Dudley Senanayake, took refuge on a British warship, HMS Newfoundland. But if there was fear of insurrection, that fear proved unfounded. At the end of the day, the left parties congratulated the masses and urged everyone to resume business as usual the next day. Nevertheless, in some areas, the protests continued and intensified.

Critics later argued that the Hartal could and should have been escalated. The late Edmund Samarakkody, for example, maintained that the Hartal was a missed revolutionary opportunity. In the Preface, the editors disagree: ‘Today there are some people who are of the view that the left leaders should have continued the Hartal until they captured state power from the ruling class. The book shows the fallacy of this contention.’ According to this view, the masses were not ready.

In my opinion, the opposite was the case. Based on the materials in this book, one could argue that it was the left leaders who were not ready. It is clear that the LSSP (and the CP–VLSSP, too) never expected the Hartal to be anything more than a one-day peaceful protest. As a result, the party’s cadres were caught off guard, and were incapable of providing revolutionary leadership on the spot.

My main criticism of this book is its narrow focus on the LSSP, or rather on the public face of the LSSP. I wish the editors had included material from the CP–VLSSP. If the truth be told, the government was more worried about the CP–VLSSP than the LSSP. Remember that the Stalinists had been in one of their ultra-left adventurist periods; the Communist Party of India had been on the warpath, leading armed struggle in Telengana. Philip Gunawardena was also breathing fire. His VLSSP is often described as an appendage of the CP. That was not true. If anything, the CP, embroiled in its own factional feuding, feared that Philip might upset the applecart and capture the party. That was not a prospect that the government relished.

Likewise, the book gives no hint that the LSSP, too, was deeply divided. The years since independence in 1948 had been hard on the LSSP. The bourgeois-nationalist UNP government enjoyed wide popular support, cultivated through generous social welfare programmes, like the rice subsidy, paid for by the boom in exports driven by the Korean War. The LSSP had its high hopes dashed at the polls in 1952. A section of the party, particularly some of the trade union leaders, moved to the right. A report by a representative of the Fourth International in Ceylon stated that ‘the election defeat had completely demoralised these opportunist elements… Internationally they searched the horizons for a Messiah to rescue them – obviously to Stalinism. Nationally, they similarly had themselves to believe in united fronts comprising all and sundry – most important that it should look “formidable” in scope.’ (Report by B.H., 20 October 1953) In other words, a substantial section of the LSSP had become ‘soft’ on the CP–VLSSP. ‘The Hartal ruined everything for them … During the Hartal their people, very naturally having no faith in the proletariat (due to their obsession with “broad fronts”), underestimated the possibilities and even chances of success … 12 August found these people asleep.’ Right after the Hartal, the LSSP split, with a significant chunk defecting to the CP–VLSSP camp.

The LSSP didn’t reap the rewards of its rôle in the Hartal at the next elections in 1956, as it had hoped. Sensing better than most which way the wind was blowing, Philip Gunawardena allied with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s populist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which campaigned on a demagogic platform of ‘Sinhalese socialism’. Swept into office, the Philip–SLFP popular front marginalised the LSSP, enacting popular reforms, such as Philip’s Paddy Lands Act.

The Hartal was the last great mass struggle that the LSSP led. After 1953, the forces of conservatism and parliamentary reformism, epitomised by Dr N.M. Perera, gained momentum. But that is another story.

My own criticism aside, I highly recommend this book as a significant contribution to the history of Sri Lankan Trotskyism. Wesley Muthiah and Sydney Wanasinghe have set a publishing standard which hopefully others will emulate. I, for one, eagerly await their next labour of love.

Charles Wesley Ervin

Updated by ETOL: 21.10.2011