International Trotskyism

Robert J. Alexander


Trotskyism in Ceylon/ Sri Lanka: Split and Decline of Ceylon/Sri Lanka Trotskyism


Publishing information: Robert J. Alexander, International Trotskyism 1929-1985: A Documented Analysis of the Movement. Copyright 1991, Duke University Press. Posted with permission. All rights reserved. This material may be saved or photocopied for personal use but may not be otherwise reproduced, stored or transmitted by any medium without explicit permission. Any alteration to or republication of this material is expressly forbidden. Please direct permissions inquiries to: Permissions Officer, Box 90660, Durham, NC 27708, USA; or fax 919.688.3524.
Transcribed: Johannes Schneider for the ETOL February, 2001


The entry of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party into the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike opened a new phase in the history of Ceylonese Trotskyism. It generated very extensive opposition within the party and led to an almost immediate split. Subsequently, the movement splintered further. There also developed a separation of the largest avowedly Trotskyist party of the country from the international Trotskyist movement, although various schismatic groups were subsequently affiliated with various tendencies of International Trotskyism.

Internal and International Splits

On June 7, 1964, a national conference of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party met to pass judgment on the decision to join the Bandaranaike government. Pierre Frank attended this meeting in representation of the United Secretariat [1].

The conference was split into three groups of delegates, whom James Jupp has called “the pragmatic (led by N. M. Perera, the dogmatic (Leslie Goonewardene and Colvin de Silva) and the intractable (Bala Tampoe, V. Karalasingham, and Meryl Fernando).” The group led by Perera fully backed entry into coalition with the SLFP, and it received 507 votes at the LSSP conference. The Goonewardene-de Silva group backed maintenance of the United Left Front, and they had seventy-five delegates. The third group “who were opposed to parliamentary tactics in any case” according to Jupp, had 159 delegates. The LSSP deputies were divided, seven with Perera, five with Goonewardene and de Silva, and two with the extreme group. A new Central Committee was elected to lead the party under the new circumstances [2].

The Goonewardene-de Silva group remained in the party in spite of their original opposition to the new coalition policy. However, what Jupp calls the “intractable” group withdrew to form a new party, the LSSP (Revolutionary Section). Edmund Samarakkody was named secretary of the Provisional Committee of the new party. On the day of the LSSP conference, June 7, Edmund Samarakkody issued a statement in the name of the new dissident party. It proclaimed: The decision of the reformist majority of the LSSP to enter into a coalition with the capitalist SLFP . . . government and thereby to become an instrument of the capitalist class in Ceylon, constitutes a complete violation of the basic principles of Trotskyism on which the revolutionary program of the party is based. This degeneration is the logical outcome of the parliamentary reformist line which the majority of the leadership of the party has followed for several years and the substitution of parliamentary and reformist Struggle in place of class struggle and rev olutionary perspectives, and the systematic recruitment of nonrevolutionary elements into the party on that basis. The revolutionaries of the LSSP have, in this situation, decided to organize themselves on the basis of the party program. They therefore withdraw from the conference and will hereafter function as a separate organization under the name of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Revolutionary Section) [3].

The LSSP(RS) held an Emergency Conference on July 18-19. Before it met, the Provisional Committee of the new group had written the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USEC) asking that it be recognized by USEC as its Ceylonese affiliate. The United Secretariat had already sent a message to the LSSP(RS) saying that it agreed “To recognize this Emergency Conference as officially constituting the continuing body of the Trotskyist movement in Ceylon and to empower it to speak for and conduct any matters pertaining to the section of the Fourth International in Ceylon.” In its turn, the Emergency Conference of the LSSP(RS) resolved to accept “the recognition granted, and will hereafter function as the Ceylon Unit of the Fourth International.” Fifty-four delegates voted for this resolution, nine against it, and eight abstained [4].

Thus ended the association of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party of Ceylon with the international Trotskyist movement. Although it was to continue to call and consider itself Trotskyist, henceforward no international segment of the movement concurred in that assessment.

The United Front

The Coalition and the United Front

The entry of the LSSP into the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike together with the tacit support of that government by the Communist Party began a period of more than a decade in which the coalition of the SLFP, LSSP and Communist Party constituted one of the two major political forces in national politics. Shortly after the overthrow of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s first government in 1965 the alliance of the three parties was formalized under the name of the United Front.

The entry of the LSSP in the Bandaranaike government only temporarily prevented that government from being overthrown in parliament. The new alliance of the SLFP with the Left generated considerable opposition from right-wing elements within Mrs. Bandaranaike’s party as well as from Buddhist religious leaders strongly opposed to Marxism in all its forms. These forces coalesced on December 3, r964, when, on a vote of confidence, thirteen SLFP deputies led by Minister of Lands C. P. de Silva (not to be confused with LSSP leader Colvin R. de Silva) voted with the opposition. The government thus lost by one vote.

Mrs. Bandaranaike immediately dissolved parliament and called new elections, which took place in March 1965. These elections “saw the leaders of the Buddhist clergy clearly aligned against the Coalition because of its Marxist elements: so wide was the UNP’S range of support that it extended from the Sinhala communalists to the Ceylon Workers Congress. And the result was a ‘National Government’ with a majority of over forty and support from six parties, some of which were normally bitter enemies.” [5].

For nearly five years following this defeat the United Front constituted the Opposition. The alliance among the three parties was strengthened and the idea of coalition with the SLFP came to be generally accepted by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. Furthermore, the LSSP made at least one fundamental ideological change during this period. This was on the communalist issue.

In 1960 the LSSP had finally accepted the idea that Sinhalese should be the only official language of Ceylon. It still advocated, at least in theory, the use of Tamil in those parts of the country in which the Tamils made up the majority of the population. Nevertheless, when the United National Party government in January 1966 issued regulations providing for “the reasonable use of Tamil,” the United Front parties organized massive demonstrations against these regulations. James Jupp has noted that “large sections of previous support both in the Lanka Estate Workers Union and amongst Ceylon Tamils were abandoned” by the LSSP as a result of participating in these demonstrations [6].

The LSSP and Bandaranaike’s Second Government

In May 1970 what by then had become a Ceylonese tradition, that each election resulted in the ouster of the government in power, was confirmed. The United Front gained an overwhelming victory, winning a two-thirds majority in the parliament [7].

The LSSP won the largest number of votes in its history, 433,244, and placed more members in parliament, nineteen, than ever in the past. The SLFP, through the vagaries of the electoral system and the operation of the coalition, won ninety of the 151 seats in the House, compared to only seventeen for the United National Party, which actually received over 60,000 votes more than the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. [8].

The LSSP was clearly the second party in the new United Front government and it held key positions, particularly in the economic sphere. N. M. Perera again became minister of Finance, which meant that “the main planning powers were under LSSP domination.” Colvin R. de Silva was made minister of Plantations and also minister for Constitutional Affairs, and consequently “controlled the largest sector of the economy and the processes by which ‘Sri Lanka’ was to emerge from ‘Ceylon.’ ” Leslie Goonewardene became minister of Transport. [9].

The LSSP also occupied key positions in the public administration just below the ministerial level. Done de Souza became Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Plantations while Anil Moonesinghe, who had been an LSSP minister in 1964, was named Chairman of the Ceylon Transport Board. Furthermore, the Ministry of Planning, “although nominally controlled by Mrs. Bandaranaike, was actually much closer to the LSSP controlled Ministry of Finance.” [10]

During the next five years Mrs. Bandaranaike’s second government did bring about substantial changes in the country. The new parliament assumed powers of a constitutional assembly and wrote a new constitution which changed the name of the country from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, established a single house legislature, made the legislature sovereign (on the British model) by removing the constitutional review power of the courts. At the same time the new constitution enshrined the preferential position of Buddhism and the prevalence of Sinhalese as the only official language.

Other major steps were also taken. The country’s foreign policy was oriented strongly in a Third World direction, with particular reliance on friendly relations with China and general opposition to the West. Foreign firms handling most of the country’s principal exports, as well as a large part of the plantations providing those exports, were taken over by the government. The largest newspaper chain in the country, the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon, was forced to sell most of its stock to the government, which promised to resell it to small investors [11].

LSSP and the 1971 Insurrection

The Bandaranaike government of the 1970s was not able to change many fundamental facts about Sri Lankan life and politics. A Sinhalese aristocracy remained dominant in much of the country’s economy, its professions, and its politics. In spite of “Sinhalese only” as the official language the older generation of politicians continued to be made up in large part of people trained in exclusive English-language schools in Ceylon and in British or American universities. The economy of the country remained overwhelmingly rural, and dependent on three or four major exports produced on the plantations. The plantation laborers, predominantly Tamils, continued to be the most exploited part of the population. The economy grew very little, if at all, under United Front rule, and unemployment, which had been a growing problem since the early 1950s, was much intensified.

Even the progress made since independence created unforeseen problems. The national educational system, principally in the Sinhalese language, had greatly expanded during the 1960s, particularly in the rural areas. As a consequence by 1970 there existed a large number of youths with at least a high school education in Sinhalese for whom the almost stagnant economy could not provide employment.

It was these educated and semi-educated young people for whom the economy had no place who arose in violent revolutionary revolt in April 1971. The LSSP like virtually all the rest of the Ceylonese “Old Left” was apparently caught completely unawares by this uprising. It strongly opposed the movement.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was apparently first established as a secret faction within the pro-Maoist Communist Party in 1965 [12]. Most of the JVP members and leaders who had previous political involvement had apparently been members of either the pro-Peking or pro-Moscow Communist parties. James Jupp has noted that the pro-Soviet party was “severely affected by JVP ... and the Communists faced the prospect of permanently losing their younger supporters if they were too closely identified with the government.” He added that “The LSSP, in contrast, had no such problems, having lost most of its revolutionary members in 1964.” [13]. However, in the JVP “most of the leaders and the great bulk of the rank and file . . . had few links, if any, with the established Marxist movement.” [14]

The JVP was popularly referred to by the Ceylonese press as “Guevarists,” and they apparently did consider themselves Marxist-Leninists. However, unlike the teachings of Ernesto Che Guevara, advocate of a long-drawn-out guerrilla conflict, the JVP rebels attempted a coordinated mass uprising marked particularly by attacks on police stations and other public buildings, all on the same day. Once this movement had clearly failed, it remained only a matter of time until the uprising was suppressed. However, in some parts of the country this “time” was a matter of “a few weeks of sharp fighting and several months of mopup operations. ...” [15] In combatting the JVP uprising the government resorted to substantial restrictions on civil liberties for an extended period of time. About 15,000 young people were arrested and held without charges, and a year passed before some of these were finally brought to trial [16].

The LSSP strongly opposed the JVP uprising. Years later, N. M. Perera called it “an incredible maniacal design to overthrow a progressive government in the interest of capitalist reactionaries by pretenders to revolutionary socialism. ...” [17]

The LSSP mobilized the trade union movement against the rebels. N. M. Perera suggested to Mrs. Bandaranaike that the trade unionists be armed to fight the rebels, arguing that the army was very weak and the police were totally demoralized, and the unionists were the only ones upon whom the government could depend. Mrs. Bandaranaike refused this suggestion, fearing that it would result in effect in passing power over to the LSSP, which still dominated much of the labor movement [18]. But James Jupp has noted that “the Coalition unions formed the backbone of the volunteer vigilante squads formed to combat the jvp during the insurrection.” [19]

In spite of its general opposition to the JVP insurrection, the LSSP suffered considerably because of it. Robert Kearney has noted that “The agony of the LSSP is suggested by the fact that one member of the party’s parliamentary group was the only M.P. arrested in connection with the insurrection, and another was gravely wounded by rebel bullets while participating in a military expedition against the insurgents.” [20]

Apparently the JVP uprising also had some impact on the internal politics of the LSSP. Jupp has noted that “there was ... a marked increase in support for the party’s Left, represented by V. Karalasingham and V. Mayakkara, in elections to its Central Committee” following the JVP insurrection [21].

Expulsion from the United Front Government

After more than five years in the United Front government the Lanka Sama Samaja Party was suddenly ousted from it by Prime Minister Bandaranaike in August 1975. Undoubtedly both strains between the LSSP and its senior partner in the coalition, the SLFP, and pressures within the LSSP itself contributed to the party’s fall from office.

The continued militancy of the trade unions under LSSP control had provoked a crisis in late 1974. A demonstration which was being planned by the LSSP-dominated Ceylon Federation of Labor was banned by the government, and the prime minister threatened to use troops to thwart it when the Federation leaders said that they would hold the demonstration anyway. They finally called off the meeting. Two months later, in January 1975, the Joint Committee of Trade Union Organizations, in which LSSP influence was also preponderant, threatened a general strike in support of a series of political demands. The strike was called off when the government agreed to Some of the demands including nationalization of estates which had until then remained in private hands. [22]

This further nationalization of plantations provoked another dispute within the government. The LSSP expected that the estates involved would be placed under Colvin R. de Silva’s Ministry of Plantation Industry as most of those which had been taken over by the government in 1972 had been. The prime minister thought differently, however, and the newly expropriated estates were placed instead under the SLFP-controlled Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. This move thwarted the hopes of the LSSP to recruit plantation workers into their unions on a large scale in the estates involved [23].

Meanwhile, there were growing expressions of discontent within the LSSP at the lack of progress being made (from the LSSP point of view) by the United Front government. As early as the party conference of 1972 the LSSP ministers had to thwart passage of a resolution “proposed by a group of younger central committee members outside the inner circle of party leaders,” which “voiced dissatisfaction with the progress made through the UF and called on the party to push more aggressively for radical measures,” by threatening to resign from the government. This resolution was withdrawn, but its supporters won almost half of the positions in the new central committee of the party.

Shortly afterward there appeared a Vama Samasamaja (Left Samasamaja) group within the party. It called for an open break with the SUP and withdrawal from the government. Although the leaders of this group were soon expelled it apparently had considerable backing, particularly among younger members of the party [24].

These controversies did not necessarily foretell a break in the United Front or the exit of the LSSP from the government at least insofar as the LSSP was concerned. Initiative for that development came, rather, from the prime minister herself. Early in August 1975 she published a letter she had written to N. M. Perera which criticized a speech he had made to an LSSP meeting, accusing him of attacking the SLFP and endangering the coalition. Perera responded “in a conciliatory tone,” saying that “despite our differences the common grounds on which we stand in the Front is ample to enable us to continue to function in unity.” [25]

Subsequently Mrs. Bandaranaike is said to have claimed that the reason for her thus picking a quarrel with the LSSP was the fact that they had approached her with the idea that she give up the prime ministership and become president of Sri Lanka. The presidency was at that time a relatively powerless position, and the LSSP is said to have proposed that N. M. Perera take over the prime ministership [26].

Whether or not this was Mrs. Bandaranaike’s motivation, she soon informed the LSSP leaders that she intended to reorganize the cabinet, and in this reorganization offered them posts of considerable less importance than those they had hitherto held. They rejected this move, saying that any reorganization of the cabinet had to be the result of negotiations among the parties which participated in it. Prime Minister Bandaranaike thereupon asked the president of Sri Lanka to dismiss the three LSSP ministers, which he promptly did [27].

The Decline of the LSSP

The expulsion of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party from the government proved to be very damaging to the LSSP. Outside of the United Front the party, along with all other Marxist groups, suffered from the fact that the country had been tending for some time toward a two-party system. The LSSP and Communist Party had been largely “quarantined” from this trend in the elections from 1956 to 1970 because of electoral arrangements and then alliance with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. As James Jupp has commented, “by removing the Marxists from the Coalition in 1975 and 1977 Mrs. Bandaranaike consigned them to electoral oblivion.” But he added that “by splitting the vote which had been united in 1970 she made it impossible to salvage much for her own party either.” [28].

The July 21, 1977 general election was a massive victory for the United National Party, which received 51.5 percent of the vote and seated 139 members of parliament. The SLFP, in contrast, received only 30 percent of the vote and eight members of the National Assembly. The Tamil United Liberation Front, the major Tamil group, received an appreciable parliamentary representation - 17 members. It did so, however, while getting only a little more than six percent of the vote [29].

In the 1977 election the LSSP formed a coalition with the pro-Moscow Communist Party and a new group, the People’s Democratic Party, which was a splinter from the SLFP. This United Left Front issued an election manifesto which promised “to eliminate foreign capitalist monopolies,” as well as “to abolish completely feudal relations ... to limit and progressively reduce the role of the private sector,” and “to democratize the state system.” [30]

The election was an utter disaster for the LSSP. Its vote fell from 433,244 in 1970 to 230,281 seven years later. It failed for the first time in forty-one years to elect anyone to parliament. Perhaps the only consolation was that the party still continued to get almost twice as many votes as the Communists, who also failed for the first time in their history to elect any legislators [31].

This electoral defeat was only the beginning of the decline of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. In the years that followed it lost a large part of its base in the trade union movement. The victorious United National Party, which under its new leader J. R. Jayawardena, one of the few pre-independence politicians to survive the 1977 election, had proclaimed itself to be “democratic Socialist,” won control of a substantial part of the labor movement. In part this reflected the tendency of workers in government enterprises to join unions controlled by the party in power. However, it also represented a major long-term defeat for the LSSP, which for forty years had dominated organized labor [32].

Prime Minister Jayawardena in 1978 brought about the enactment of a new constitution, establishing a presidential system in place of the parliamentary one which had existed since before Ceylon achieved independence. N. M. Perera issued at that time an extensive criticism of the new constitution [33].

In elections for president held under the new constitution in October 1982 the LSSP ran Colvin R. de Silva against President J. R. Jayawardena. He was reported as receiving less than 1 percent of the vote “as former LSSP voters cast their ballots directly for the SLFP. ...” [34]

After establishment of the new UNP regime the first conference of the LSSP in March 1978 conducted a “reappraisal of what it called a ‘critical phase’ in the leftist movement. While admitting some tactical error, the party decided that parliament should remain the primary force. ...” [35]

In August 1979, the veteran president of the LSSP, N. M. Perera, died. As a consequence, Athanda Seneviratne was elected as his successor [36].

When the Jayawardena government called elections for “district development councils” in June 1981 the LSSP called for their followers to boycott the poll as did the SFLP and the Communists. The UNP thus won control of three quarters of these local bodies [37].

In May 1983 there were eighteen parliamentary byelections. Although there were negotiations for a common slate of opposition parties these failed. The LSSP as a result ran its own candidates, but was unable to elect anyone. Later in the year, following the most serious communal riots on record between Sinhalese and Tamils, the LSSP refused to participate in a “multiparty meeting on the Tamil issue.” [38].

In 1977, perhaps partly in consequence of the electoral defeat of that year, the LSSP suffered a split. A group broke away to form the Nava Sama Samaja party (NSSP), which aligned internationally with the Militant Tendency in Great Britain. Then, in 1982, the NSSP itself suffered a split when a group sympathetic with the United Secretariat broke away to form Socialist Worker [39].

It was not clear by the mid-1980s whether the LSSP would be able to recover even some of the ground which it had lost in the late 1970s. Nor could it be predicted whether the left alliance which strengthened the LSSP’s political position from 1964 to 1975 could be reestablished. By early 1982 the SLFP, the core of this alliance, was itself sorely split between two rival factions.

Historical Overview of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party

The Nature of the LSSP Leadership and Backing

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party had remained for more than four decades the most influential professedly Trotskyist party anywhere in the world. It was one of only about half a dozen such parties which had gained members of its national parliament, and the only one to participate in the national government. Therefore, before going on to look at the fate of other Trotskyist groups in Ceylon/Sri Lanka it is important to look at a number of the characteristics of the LSSP.

The people who established the LSSP in the mid-1930s and continued to be its leaders for the next four decades were highly educated men of upper class Sinhalese origin. Almost all of them had been educated in private English-language schools in Ceylon and had received university training in Great Britain or the United States. Robert Kearney, writing about all of the country’s Marxist parties, has said that “the educational level of the Marxist legislators is consistently well above the average of the chamber. Nine of fourteen, or 64 percent, of the Marxists elected to Parliament in 1965 were graduates of the universities or professional schools, compared with 35 percent (47 of 136) of all other M.P.s.” [40]

At least some of the LSSP leaders were outstanding members of the professional or business community. Colvin R. de Silva was widely recognized as one of the country’s most brilliant — and best-paid — lawyers. N. M. Perera was a successful businessman and at one point was asked by the other party leaders to sell his interest in a vegetable oil mill in which a Communist-controlled union had organized a strike. After the break with the Fourth International the United Secretariat complained bitterly that the party’s principal leaders had refused to become full-time politicians [41].

The nature of the leadership of the party did not change fundamentally for four decades. Although a handful of rank-and-file trade unionists rose to top levels of the LSSP most of the Politburo and Central Committee members continued to come from the same general social origins as the party’s founders.

The rank-and-file membership of the LSSP, Robert Kearney has pointed out “has been very small and highly selective.” The decision to keep it so was taken after the split of the Stalinists in 1940. As a result, “by the early 1960s, after a quarter of a century of existence, the LSSP included under 2,000 members.” The result of this was that “the small, active, ideologically committed membership has made possible the vigorous rank-and-file involvement in party affairs and has given the LSSP an organizational coherence, discipline, and apparent sense of purpose and direction superior to those of most other Ceylonese parties.” [42]

Other observers have commented on the quality of the LSSP’s organization. James Jupp noted that “my visits to party headquarters in 1969 suggested that the UNP had the largest, the LSSP the most efficient the Communists the most modern and the SLFP the most ramshackle.” [43]

The LSSP paid a price for its deliberate limitation of its membership. Robert Kearney has noted that “the party’s elitist character restricted the establishment of the multiple, widespread links with the general public which seem necessary for the effective mobilization of mass electoral support.” He illustrated this point by noting that “it was not unusual for parliamentary constituencies contested by Samasamajist candidates, even in the principal areas of LSSP strength, to contain no more than ten or twenty party members.” [44]

The LSSP maintained wider popular contacts through a so-called “Youth League” similar to those of most of the other parties. These were organizations of sympathizers. James Jupp has noted that the Youth Leagues “are normally larger than the party proper, and in the ‘Leninist’ LSSP are eight to ten times larger.” [45] Robert Kearney has commented that “the LSSP Youth League, and to some extent the party’s trade unions, partially filled the need for broad mass organizations able to mobilize participants for demonstrations and rallies, canvass electoral support, and help to project the influence of the party through the general public.” [46]

The restrictive membership policy of the LSSP was changed to some degree after 1964. The number of members had doubled to about 4,000 by 1970, and after the election triumph of that year “applications for membership soared.”

The members recruited after the LSSP became a member of the United Front were somewhat different, apparently, from those who had traditionally belonged to the party. Robert Kearney noted that “the post-1964 recruits reportedly do not possess the same commitment to the longstanding LSSP perspectives, conventions, and leaders, and tend to be more concerned with immediate problems and objectives than the party veterans.” They were more inclined to support the party’s membership in the United Front than were the older party members[47]. However, by the mid-1970s, as we have noted, many of the younger members of the LSSP were growing unhappy with the allegedly slow progress which the United Front government was making in carrying out the party’s objectives.

The electorate of the LSSP was confined largely to a relatively limited area in the southwestern part of the island. Robert Kearney has defined this region as “three adjacent areas, a narrow coastal belt extending south from Colombo and stabbing into the western edge of the Southern Province, an inland pocket in the Western Province to the southeast of Colombo, and a nearby group of constituencies in neighboring Sabaragamuwa Province east of Colombo.” He added that “Few LSSP victories have been scored outside of a triangle running from Colombo eastward less than fifty miles to the Kanyan foothills in Sabaragamuwa Province and from Colombo south along the coast nearly to Galle in the Southern Province.” [48]

This area of LSSP strength divided into a region right along the coast and another further into the interior. According to Kearney, the party had particular appeal along the coast to minority Sinhalese caste groups who in some degree saw the LSSP as an opponent of political domination by the dominant Goyigama caste. In the interior region the population is Goyigama, and Kearney argued that “Samasamajist strength there seems most readily attributable to intense organizational and agitational activities over nearly four decades.” [49].

LSSP Internal Democracy

One British observer has commented that “The LSSP leaders, brought up on Trotsky’s denunciation of Stalinist bureaucracy, were intellectually committed to free discussion and the permission of more factionalism than was normal in Leninist parties after 1917.” [50] Robert Keamey has confirmed this, saying that “the democratic internal functioning of the LSSP through vigorous discussion of alternative policies, open competition for party posts, and adherence to majority decisions is a source of great pride for Samasamajists.” He added that “the LSSP leadership appears to adhere meticulously to the rules and norms of the party in elections and policy making, and to follow the decisions reached by the party conference or Central Committee.” [51].

Elections for the Central Committee of the LSSP were often sharply contested. As many as seventy or eighty candidates would run for fifty positions. The Politburo was elected annually by the Central Committee by secret ballot. In addition “the Trotskyist outlook of the LSSP has produced strong emphasis on the evils of dictatorial control by a party bureaucracy, and the right of members to form factions and work within the party for the acceptance of their viewpoints is granted by the party constitution and supported by the ethos of the party.” [52]

The internal democracy of the LSSP was in strong contrast to the situation within the Communist Party, which followed traditional Stalinist procedures [53].

The LSSP and the Labor Movement

After World War II a major factor in the strength of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party was its influence in the organized labor movement. Robert Kearney has noted that “the LSSP requires of its members regular services for the party and active participation in party affairs and the holding of a trade union office or other union duties is one type of activity accepted as fulfilling this party requirement.” In addition, Kearney notes that “although a division of function between party and trade union duties is recognized in day-to-day activities, a major strike, even though without discernible political objectives, is likely to receive the assistance of party members. ....” [54]

In 1946 the LSSP gained control over the Ceylon Federation of Labor, which had originally been established by “a minor political group.” [55] Subsequently, it also became dominant in the Government Workers Trade Union Federation which then “functioned in close and scarcely disguised association with the LSSP ... despite the prohibitions against partisan attachments by public servants’ organizations. ...” The LSSP also dominated the Government Clerical Service Union. Until the split in the party in 1964 it also dominated the small but powerful Ceylon Mercantile Union headed by Bala Tampoe [56].

Robert Kearney notes that in the early 1970d with regard to the Ceylon Federation of Labor “a large majority of the CFL’s officers and executive committee members have always been members of the LSSP. The party is said not directly to control and regulate CFL affairs, but the federation is in agreement with the party and consistently follows the party’s lead, particularly on political questions.” [57].

In 1963 all of the unions controlled by the LSSP, Communist Party, and the MEP of Philip Gunawardena, together with some independent unions, joined to form the Joint Committee of Trade Union Organizations (JCTUO). It drew up a list of demands on the government. However, “when the LSSP entered the government the following year, the JCTUO was asked to suspend agitation on a series of labor demands ... the ensuing battle demolished the JCTUO, ending the Ceylonese labor movement’s most serious attempt at unity.” [58] Subsequently, JCTUO was reformed by the unions associated with the LSSP, SLFP, and the Communist Party. We have already noted its pressures on the United Front government in 1974.

Most of the LSSP’s unions were in the vicinity of Colombo — the capital, major port and principal industrial center. For some years it also controlled a major plantation workers’ organization, the Lanka Estate Workers Union, but it lost control of that group when it adopted a strongly anti-Tamil position early in 1966.

A substantial number of the LSSP unions consisted of government employees and workers in government enterprises. Because of the expansion of the spoils system after independence this kind of worker presented special problems to the unions regardless of which party controlled them. Many workers tended to belong to more than one union, sometimes to all of those existing in their particular place of employment. This made it possible for a worker to claim “support” of whatever party was in power or was likely to come to power [59].

The LSSP, Trotskyism, and Reform

During more than four decades after its foundation the LSSP was faced with the quandary of Trotskyist revolutionary ideology versus reformism. Although the world Trotskyist movement believed that the party had made a definitive decision in favor of reformism in 1964 the LSSP leaders did not believe or admit this [60]. Pressures in both directions continued as long as the LSSP continued to be a significant factor in national politics.

The LSSP was not Trotskyist at its inception although some of its founders did sympathize with Trotsky at that time. There is some question concerning when Leon Trotsky himself first became aware of the existence of a group of his followers in Ceylon. George Lerski believed that Trotsky addressed only one communication directly to the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, in December 1939, in reply to a letter from Selina Perera, the wife of the LSSP leader N. M. Perera and herself a person of some distinction in the party [61]. Lerski thought that this communication from Trotsky “might have some effect on the LSSP majority’s historical decision to expel the Stalinists over the crucial issue of adherence to the Comintern.”[62]

After the expulsion of the Stalinists the Lanka Sama Samaja Party was clearly a Trotskyist organization. The Bolshevik-Leninist Party which they joined in India in 1942 was officially the “Indian Section of the Fourth International.”[63] Subsequently, the LSSP was to be the Ceylonese Section of the International.

However, the Ceylonese Trotskyists had a markedly different experience from that of any of their colleagues in the Fourth International. Starting in 1947 they did exceedingly well in parliamentary elections. The LSSP and Bolshevik Samasamajist parties together received almost 17 percent of the total vote in the first postwar election. Subsequently, they continued to get more than io percent of the vote until the second election of 1960, and even after that they remained a significant element in parliament and in the country’s general political life until the disaster of 1977 [64].

This electoral success and the extensive influence of the LSSP in the labor movement inevitably raised ideological and strategic questions within the party. Writing after the 1964 split, Fourth International leader Ernest Mandel said that “in fact, while being formally a Trotskyist party, the LSSP functioned in several areas comparably to a left Social Democratic party in a relatively ‘prosperous’ semicolonial country; i.e., it was the main electoral vehicle of the poor masses, it provided the main leadership of the trade unions.” Mandel also argued that “the party leadership itself was not homogeneous. It was composed in reality of two wings, one led by N. M. Perera and Philip Gunawardena which displayed petty-bourgeois nationalist inclinations and was opportunist from the start, the other, genuinely Trotskyist, led by a group of comrades around Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, Bernard Soysa, Edmund Samarakkody, Doric de Souza and Bala Tampoe.” [65]

The two groups mentioned by Mandel split clearly into two parties in the late 1940s, and when they were reunited in 1950 Philip Gunawardena refused to remain in the unified group. Moreover, formal unity of the LSSP and Bolshevik Samasamajist parties did not end the problem presented by the fact that the Trotskyists were making modest but appreciable headway through “reformist” action regardless of how “revolutionary” their rhetoric remained.

On a programmatic level the LSSP continued to be committed to revolutionary change in Ceylonese society. In its 1950 program it proclaimed its “fundamental aims” to be “the overthrow of the Capitalist state,” and “seizure of political power by the working class at the head of the toiling masses.”[66] It also declared that the party’s “fundamental aims cannot be realized through bourgeois parliaments. The inevitable resistance of the bourgeoisie to their achievement necessarily calls for mass revolutionary action as the only means of realizing the will of the majority.” [67]

However, as Robert Kearney observes, “over the next two decades, the party appeared to devote its principal efforts to election contests and the activities of Parliament and local government bodies. The election of 1956, which saw the rout of the UNP, identified by the Samasamajists as the party of the capitalist class, unquestionably sharpened awareness of the possibilities of election contests and led to reconsideration of the most suitable path to the party’s goals.”

Kearney has noted that “the 1964 decision to enter the coalition Government with the SLFP represented the triumph of the view that through elections and control of Parliament substantial and worthwhile gains could be achieved. The party schism which accompanied the decision removed the doctrinaire Trotskyist wing of the party and significantly reduced the doctrinal inhibitions on acceptance of the electoral and parliamentary path to the party’s goals.” An unofficial statement of the LSSP periodical commented in 1970 on “many instances in recent history of crucial mass issues arising in the parliamentary context,” and added that “where parliamentary democracy exists and political parties are permitted to represent class and mass interests, it is foolish for any revolutionary to refuse to plunge himself into parliamentary battles.”[68]

The LSSP did not give up all allegiance to revolutionary action. Even after the party entered the government in 1964 N. M. Perera observed that “there may be those who will say that we have not at one fell stroke taken over all foreign and local capitalist property lock, stock and barrel, forgetful of the mass upsurge that must accompany it. Such a mass upsurge must be generated by the heightened class consciousness of the toilers, born of the social inequalities and wrongs of the capitalist system.”[69]

Even as late as their participation in the Bandaranaike government of the 1970s the LSSP leaders still considered themselves Trotskyists. N. M. Perera told this writer in 1971 that they were Trotskyists but that Trotskyism was not “a narrow, sectarian and dogmatic philosophy.” The Samasamajists felt the Trotskyism “must grow and be applied to the circumstances of each individual country.” He argued that it was the leaders of the “so-called Fourth International” who had “wandered away from the original ideas and orientation of Trotskyism” and “lived in a very rarified atmosphere.” He added that the people of the Fourth International had never been able to build up a party of any significance anywhere [70].

The fundamental conflict between revolution and reformism remained with the party during its 1970s government experience and certainly contributed to its ultimate ouster from Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government. This was clear from statements of various party leaders during that period.

In 1974 Colvin R. de Silva, whom ten years before Ernest Mandel had characterized as “the party’s most able theoretician and one of the most powerful orators in all Asia,”[71] gave a lecture to party cadres in which he discussed the point. He noted that “because of the numerical weakness of the industrial working class and the existence of a large petit bourgeoisie ... the class struggle in contemporary Sri Lanka necessitated a series of maneuvers and alliances to draw sections of other classes toward the working class in ‘a common revolutionary struggle.’ ” He admitted that the United Front government had not changed the bourgeois nature of the state but claimed that it had been “penetrated by a different class consciousness” and had been converted into “an arena of the class struggle.”[72]

Leslie Goonewardene said in the next year that “an ordered development to socialism through a parliamentary system cannot be excluded,” but “to say that such a development is not excluded is not ... the same thing as to say that it is likely. It would be dangerous to come to the facile conclusion that because the road to socialism commences and proceeds a fair distance within the peaceful framework of parliamentary institutions, this process will be completed in the same manner. It would be particularly irresponsible to come to such a conclusion after the recent example of Chile.”[73]

Shortly before the expulsion of the LSSP from the government N. M. Perera, in his last budget speech to parliament, made a somewhat similar point. He argued that “socialism cannot be achieved by standing still and prating about consolidation. The path to socialism is not dotted with halting places. The march forward has to be pushed ahead with determination.”[74].

Thus, forty years after its establishment, the Lanka Sama Samaja party still proclaimed itself to be a Trotskyist party although none of the rest of the world Trotskyist movement recognized it as such. At the same time, because over a long period it had had modest electoral success it was the only avowedly Trotskyist party which had been faced in a very practical way with the quandary of deciding between continued commitment to revolution and the practical benefits of functioning along reformist lines. By the time of its dramatic and drastic electoral defeat in 1977 it had not resolved this contradiction.


Footnotes


[1] Edmund Samarakkody: “The Struggle for Trotskyism in Ceylon”, Spartacist, New York, winter 1973-74, page 15
[2] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 79
[3] International Socialist Review, fall 1964, New York, page 79
[4] International Socialist Review, fall 1964, New York, page 114
[5] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 26
[6] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 103
[7] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 293
[8] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 371
[9] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 294
[10] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 295
[11] see James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, Chapter 11, pages 326-362
[12] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page xix
[13] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 81
[14] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 297
[15] Robert N. Kearney: “The Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Disrupted United Front Path to Socialism in Sri Lanka”, (manuscript) page 9
[16] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, pages 317-319
[17] N. M. Perera: Critical Analysis of the New Constitution of the Sri Lanka Government, Colombo, n.d. (1979), page 36
[18] Interview with Ralph Buultjens, New York, August 12, 1981
[19] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 309
[20] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[21]James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 81
[22] Robert N. Kearney: “The Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Disrupted United Front Path to Socialism in Sri Lanka”, (manuscript) pages 4-5
[23] Robert N. Kearney: “The Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Disrupted United Front Path to Socialism in Sri Lanka”, (manuscript) page 6
[24] Robert N. Kearney: “The Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Disrupted United Front Path to Socialism in Sri Lanka”, (manuscript) page 10
[25] Robert N. Kearney: “The Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Disrupted United Front Path to Socialism in Sri Lanka”, (manuscript) page 11
[26] Interview with Ralph Buultjens, New York, August 12, 1981
[27] Robert N. Kearney: “The Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Disrupted United Front Path to Socialism in Sri Lanka”, (manuscript) pages 11-12
[28] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 367
[29] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 371
[30] Intercontinental Press, New York, July 11, 1977, page 799
[31] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 371
[32] Interview with C. E. L. Wickremasinghe, New York, January 12, 1982
[33] N. M. Perera: Critical Analysis of the New Constitution of the Sri Lanka Government, Colombo, n.d. (1979)
[34] Workers Vanguard, New York, January 28, 1983, page 5
[35] 1979 Yearbook of International Communist Affairs, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, 1979, page 289
[36] 1980 Yearbook of International Communist Affairs, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, 1980, page 299
[37] 1982 Yearbook of International Communist Affairs, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, 1982, page 229
[38] 1984 Yearbook of International Communist Affairs, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, 1984, page 275-276
[39] Letter to author from Upali Cooray, January 31, 1983
[40] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[41] Interview with C. E. L. Wickremasinghe, New York, January 12, 1982
[42] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[43] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 130
[44] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[45] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 94
[46] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[47] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[48] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[49] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[50] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 98
[51] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[52] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[53] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[54] Robert N. Kearny: Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, University of California Press, Berkley, 1971, pages 62-64
[55] Robert N. Kearny: Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, University of California Press, Berkley, 1971, page 78
[56] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[57] Robert N. Kearny: Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, University of California Press, Berkley, 1971, page 86
[58] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[59] Interview with C. E. L. Wickremasinghe, New York, January 12, 1982
[60] Interview with N. M. Perera, New York, September 21, 1971
[61] George Lerski: Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon, Hoover Institution, Stanford, 1968, page 187
[62] George Lerski: Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon, Hoover Institution, Stanford, 1968, page 189
[63] Rodolphe Prager (Editor): Les Congrès de la Quatrième Internationale, Volume 2: L’ dans la Guerre (1940-1946), Editions La Brèche, Paris, 1981, page 47
[64] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 370
[65] Ernest Germain: “ Peoples Frontism in Ceylon: From Wavering to Capitulation”, International Socialist Review, fall 1964, New York, page 105
[66] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[67] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[68] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[69] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[70] Interview with N. M. Perera, New York, September 21, 1971
[71] Ernest Germain: “ Peoples Frontism in Ceylon: FromWavering to Capitulation”, International Socialist Review, fall 1964, New York, page 105
[72] Robert N. Kearney: “The Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Disrupted United Front Path to Socialism in Sri Lanka”, (manuscript) page 3
[73] Robert N. Kearney: “The Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Disrupted United Front Path to Socialism in Sri Lanka”, (manuscript) pages 3-4
[74] Robert N. Kearney: “The Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Disrupted United Front Path to Socialism in Sri Lanka”, (manuscript) page 4


Last updated on: 13.2.2005