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

Schisms in the LSSP

The Philip Gunawardena Party

Throughout its history the Trotskyist movement of Ceylon/Sri Lanka gave rise to a number of schismatic groups. The two most long-run were the party established by Philip Gunawardena in the early 19505 and the dissident group organized with the bless­ing of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International in 1964.

Philip Gunawardena was among the founders of the LSSP. He and N. M. Perera were thrown out of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India in 1945, and were from then on joint leaders of the rump LSSP. When the two groups again united Gunawardena refused to go along and withdrew his supporters to form the Revolutionary Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party — VLSSP).

Like all of the Ceylonese parties which were originally of Marxist origin the VLSSP had a certain amount of trade-union backing. Gunawardena had taken the lead many years before in organizing the All-Ceylon Harbor and Dock Workers Union, and it remained for many years his principal labor group. In 1957 it became the major affiliate of a new Central Council of Trade Unions established under VLSSP sponsorship and control. By that time, due to the presence of Philip Gunawardena in the govemment of Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike the VLSSP had succeeded in establishing a number of other unions.

Although the unions controlled by the Gunawardena party never constituted the largest element in the labor movement they were for many years a significant one. They apparently reached the peak of their membership in 1965, with some 36,841 members. In the following year the number fell to 23,941 [75].

The VLSSP had had varying political fortunes. In 1952 it formed an electoral alliance with the Communist Party. This coalition won four seats in parliament, of whom three were Communists. The victorious VLSSP nominee was Kusumasiri Gunawardena the wife of Philip, who himself had shortly before been disqualified from running “for offences connected with a strike.” [76]

In preparation for the 1956 election the VLSSP joined the Manajana Eksath Peramuna (People’s United Front — MEP) coalition. The MEP was centered on the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and in­cluded in addition to the VLSSP the Basna Peramuna headed by another ex-member of the LSSP, W. Dananayake, and a group of independent politicians [77]. Five of the fifty-one successful MEP candidates were members of the VLSSP [78].

Two members of the VLSSP joined the cabinet of Prime Minister Bandaranaike, Philip Gunawardena as minister of agriculture, and P. J. William de Silva as minister of in­dustries. Among other measures, Minister of Agriculture Gunawardena undertook a land distribution campaign which threat­ened holdings of some of the Buddhist reli­gious institutions. He soon engendered considerable opposition from the Buddhist clergy. As a consequence of this and of the continued militancy of VLSSP-led unions the right wing of the prime minister’s coalition mobilized against Gunawardena’s presence in the government.

James Jupp has noted that “the Left was finally defeated by the so-called ‘Cabinet strike’ in which ten Cabinet Ministers advised Bandaranaike that they would not function in their offices until Philip had been got rid of.” These ministers “charged that he was generally incompetent, had exercised massive patronage in the Co-operative Wholesale Establishment, was irresponsibly supporting the portworkers’ strikes, had offended by his attacks on private enterprise.” As a result of this onslaught, Gunawardena and the VLSSP were forced out of the government in November 1958 [79].

In 1959 the VLSSP adopted the name of the former coalition, the MEP. James Jupp commented that it “rapidly became communalist.” [80] As early as 1954 the VLSSP had adopted the position of favoring Sinhalese as the only official language of Ceylon, instead of Sinhalese and Tamil, a position which the LSSP did not adopt until the middle 1960s [81].

The ex-VLSSP, now the MEP, contested the March 1960 election very energetically, but basically on a Sinhalese Buddhist basis. One of the MEP candidates’ election manifestos was banned from the mails because “from beginning to end it breathes anti-Catholic venom,” and Gunawardena himself threatened to distribute all of the lands of the Catholic Church if his party won, and to “expel all foreign fascist Catholics.” The MEP professed to have high hopes of winning and at one campaign meeting a poster proclaimed that it “had full confidence in Mr. Philip Gunawardena as the next Prime Minister.” [82]

The Gunawardena group had its greatest electoral success in that March 1960 election. It won ten seats in parliament and its vote of 325,832 surpassed that of the LSSP by about three thousand, although it was only half of that of the SLFP and a bit more than a third what the United National Party received [83].

In spite of this success the MEP suffered a disaster in the next election, in July 1960. This was because of “its refusal to cooperate with the SLFP, LSSP, and CP against the UNP in that short-lived Parliament.” The effect was “its isolation and . . . a split in its ranks.” [84] In July 1960 the MEP elected only three of its members and got only 102,83; votes, less than a third of what it had gotten four months earlier [85].

The MEP declined radically after this July 1960 electoral defeat. However, for some time it continued to have some considerable trade union influence and to be considered part of the Left in Ceylonese politics. It participated in the United Left Front in 1963- 64, together with the LsSP and Communist Party. When that bloc broke up with the entry of the LSSP in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s first government, the MEP did not join the Communist Party in supporting the Bandaranaike administration. Rather, it gravitated rapidly toward alliance with the United National Party. Philip Gunawardena’s brother Robert broke away to form a very short-lived United Left Front Party [86].

However, the MEP apparently still remained optimistic about its possibilities. In the ‘96s election it fielded sixty-one candidates. But this election turned out to be a disaster. Although the party received slightly more votes than in July 1960 fifty-five of the MEP nominees did so badly that they lost their deposits. Philip Gunawardena was the only candidate of the party to be elected [87]. Five years later “the MEP seemed moribund. It failed to secure a single seat in Parliament and its proportion of the popular vote fell below one percent.” [88]

Although both Philip and Robert Gunawardena died in 1972, the MEP apparently remained alive, but it no longer had any significant role in national politics. It was reported that at the time of the JVP uprising in April 1971 theonlypoliticians of any note who supported the JVP were the ex-Maoist S. D. Bandaranaike and Philip Gunawardena, “and they climbed on so many bandwagons that no one was surprised.” [89].

On May Day 1977 the MEP participated in a United Red May Day rally which it cosponsored with the Ceylon Mercantile Union (still controlled by the LSSP (Revolutionary), and a group known as the Sri Lanka Vimukthi Balagevaya. Dinesh Gunawardena spoke for the MEP and Bala Tampoe for the Ceylon Mercantile Union. There was also a speaker representing the JVP although it held its own May Day rally in another part of Colombo [90].

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Revolutionary)

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Revolutionary), which in the 1970s changed its name to Revolutionary Marxist Party, remained after 1964 the Ceylonese affiliate of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. It suffered from little of the internal tension between revolutionary purity and relatively successful reformism of the LSSP, although this did not save it entirely from splits.

The LSSP(R) participated in the election of 1965, but did very badly. Robert Keamey has noted that the party won no members of parliament, and that “two LSSP(R) candidates were veteran M.P.’s contesting the same constituencies they had won as LSSP candidates five years earlier. Both lost their deposits. One received about ,,1,000 votes while the regular LSSP candidate, in losing the contest, secured 16,000 votes. The second obtained only 275 votes, while the victorious LSSP candidate received 14,000 votes.” [91]

Five years later, the LSSP(R) did not offer candidates in the election which resulted in the triumph of the United Front. A year later, Bala Tampoe said that “my party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Revolutionary) ... did not put forward any candidates in the campaign, and in a manifesto accused the LSSP and CP of misleading the masses to the belief that the establishment of a coalition government would be a victory for the masses [92]. Their failure to offer candidates in the 1970 general election did not mean that the party repudiated the idea of electoral participation. It once again put up nominees in the election following the fall of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government in 1977.

Ernest Harsch wrote in the United Secretariat’s Intercontinental Press about the 1977 campaign of the USEC’s Sri Lanka affiliate that “in conjunction with the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU), the Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) is conducting an election campaign based on a revolutionary socialist platform. The RMP is running T. N. Perera and Upali Cooray in the Kesbewa and Dehiwela constituencies, while the CMU is fielding Deputy General Secretary Vernon Wijesinghe in Colombo North and M. A. Seneviratne in Kelaniya.”

The RMP reemphasized its Trotskyist orthodoxy in this campaign. It called for an “Anti-Capitalist United Front” the purpose of which would be to “struggle for full freedom for the masses and complete equality for all sections of the population,” and to oppose “the present or any other capitalist government established by the SLFP or the UNP, separately or in combination with any other parties, be they so-called Left parties or otherwise.” Instead, the RMP called for “the perspective of the overthrow of capitalist rule and the establishment of a Workers’ and Peasants’ Government by the masses,” which would have the objective to “set Ceylon on the path to Socialism.” [93].

The LSSP(R) also returned to Trotskyist orthodoxy in its communal attitudes. The Intercontinental Press noted in 1970 that “The LSSP(R) has vigorously defended the rights of the persecuted Tamil population.”[94] In an Open Letter which the LSSP(R) sent to the Lanka Sama Samaja party in 1969 it wrote that “many of you will remember the days when the LSSP was the fearless champion of the working class and all the oppressed sections of the Ceylonese people, irrespective of their race or religion or caste, or whether they were voters or not.” [95] (This last is a reference to the “Indian Tamils” who were deprived of Ceylonese citizenship in 1948). In November 1976 the RMP-controlled Ceylon Mercantile Union was able to get the most important Tamil trade union group, the Ceylon Workers Congress, consisting of plantation workers, to join with it and several other groups to form the Trade Union Coordinating Committee (TUCC). The TUCC played a significant role in the strikes which preceded the end of the Bandaranaike government in 1977 [96].

The LSSP(R)/RMP group continued to control the Ceylon Mercantile Union and Bala Tampoe remained head of the union as well as secretary of the party until 1981. In their public statements at least, the two organizations seemed almost interchangeable. The Trotskyists claimed that the CMU had expanded its influence in organized labor. Intercontinental Press described the union in 1977 as being “originally a white-collar union which has since gained a base among other sectors of workers.” [97]

The LSSP(R)/RMP was one of the few elements in the “Old Left” which showed any sympathy for the young “New Left” rebels of the JVP. However, Bala Tampoe made it clear that when the movement first appeared in the late 1960s the Trotskyists had little contact with it. In an interview he gave in Australia a few months before the JVP uprising Tampoe said that before August 1970 “the LSSP(R) had no clear idea of what the JVP was, but when they held their meeting on August 10, it was quite clear that it was entirely a genuine mass movement of Sinhala youth.”[98]

When the police began to arrest a number of JVP leaders in the weeks before the April 1971 uprising the LSSP(R) came to the JVP’s defense. Tampoe explained that “this police action is illegal, and I myself, since I happen to be a criminal lawyer, have, on a decision of the LSSP(R), defended several of their members in the courts as a public defence of their democratic rights to publicize their political views.”[99]

When the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike declared a state of emergency in March 1971 the Ceylon Mercantile Union sent a letter to the prime minister over the signature of Tampoe. It protested strongly against the measure and denied the threat of an armed uprising which was the justification of the state of emergency, as well as protesting various abuses which had occurred under it [100].

After the uprising, the LSSP(R) regularly protested the continued incarceration of several thousand people. It also, understandably, protested against the arrest and jailing for four months of Prins Rajasooriya, assistant secretary of the LSSP(R) [101]. International Trotskyist periodicals in various countries also gave the JVP leaders space to present their point of view.

The LSSP(R) and RMP kept in constant contact with the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. In 1970 a representative of the Socialist Workers Party of the United States, Andrew Pulley, then making a speaking tour in Asia and Australia, visited Ceylon. The LSSP(R) sponsored a meeting for him attended by five hundred people [102].

In 1971, Bala Tampoe attended a national antiwar conference in Sydney, Australia. He was interviewed there by the organ of the Australian affiliate of the United Secretariat. That interview was reprinted in Intercontinental Press [103], which from time to time during the 1970s carried news about the activities and pronouncements of the United Secretariat’s Sri Lanka affiliate.

In spite of its lingering trade union influence, the LSSP(R) remained a minor factor in the far left of Sri Lanka politics. James Jupp has suggested some of the reasons for this. Speaking of both the dissident Samasamajists and the Maoist Communists he said that “the Leftwing critics who had broken away from the LSSP and Communist Party in 1964 over the Coalition tactic had remained ineffectual precisely because they were so firmly rooted in the traditions and social character of the groups which they had left. Bala Tampoe, Shanmugathasan, Meryl Fernando, Edmund Samarakkody and Karalasingham differed in their political views from the Coalitionists. They were equally from the generation of the 1940s, from the English-speaking professional classes, from the scholastic tradition of Marxist exegesis. Their polemics were conducted in English and their following was among the university students and clerical workers. Attempts by Revolutionary Samasamajists and Maoists to enter parliament showed their complete isolation from the rural masses. ...” [104].

In 1984 the Revolutionary Marxist Party merged with a group that broke away from the Sri Lanka group which was aligned with the Militant Tendency of Great Britain. The resulting organization was called the Socialist Workers party and continued to be associated with the United Secretariat of the Fourth International [105].

Split-Offs from the LSSP(R)

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Revolutionary) suffered several splits. Undoubtedly internal pressures contributed to these divisions — the two principal original LSSP(R) leaders, Bala Tampoe and Edmund Samarakkody, soon parted ways — but these splits were also influenced by international divisions in the ranks of Trotskyism.

The first group to break away was a faction headed by V. A. Karalasingham, called the “Sakthi group” after a paper it began to publish. They soon left the LSSP(R) to return to the LSSP [106].

Subsequently, dissident elements of the LSSP(R) broke away to form the Revolutionary Workers Party and the Revolutionary Communist League. The latter became affiliated with the International Committee of the Fourth International, headed by Gerry Healy, having sent a message of greetings to the Workers League, the IC’s United States affiliate, when that group launched in 1969 a weekly edition of its periodical The Bulletin. At that time the Ceylonese Revolutionary Communist League was publishing two periodicals, one in Sinhalese, Virodhaya, and one in Tamil, Ethirppu [107]. In the election of 1970 the group, one of whose principal leaders was Wilfred Perera, supported the campaign of the LSSP/SLFP/CP coalition although within a year they were expressing strong opposition to the second government of Mrs. Bandaranaike [108]. The Revolutionary Communist League was by the early 1980s still affiliated with the Healyite International Committee [109].

The Revolutionary Workers Party (RWP) was formed under the leadership of Edmund Samarakkody and Meryl Fernando when they broke away from the LSSP(R) in 1968. It was first called the Revolutionary Samasamajist Party, but soon changed its name [110].

In 1971 the RWP established “fratemal relations” with the international Spartacist tendency (sic). In 1974, after a visit of an RWP delegation to the United States, relations between the party and the iSt cooled considerably. Nonetheless, in mid-1979 a delegation of the ist visited Sri Lanka and signed a “Unification Agreement” with the Revolutionary Workers Party. Shortly afterward Samarakkody and others attended the First Delegated International Conference of the Spartacists; the Sri Lanka delegation walked out before the meeting was over.[111].

There still continued to be some support for the Spartacists in the RWP and three members of its Political Committee formed an opposition faction. However, when the issue came to a head the principal figure in that faction, Laksiri Fernando, abandoned it. Finally, the entire pro-Spartacist Bolshevik Faction was expelled from the RWP in March 1981. Those expelled then established the Spartacist League of Sri Lanka. In January 1983 Upali Cooray (admittedly not a friendly observer) claimed that there were left in it only four founding members of the Sri Lanka Spartacist group [112]. In any case it is clear that the Spartacists were one of the smaller groups in the country claiming adherence to Trotskyism.

In mid-1983 it was reported that the Sri Lanka Spartacists were publishing two periodicals, Lanka Spartacist in Sinhalese, and Illangai Spartacist in Tamil. The format of those papers was copied from that of the publications of the Spartacist League of the United States [113].

In 1981 there was a further split in the Revolutionary Marxist Party when its principal trade union figure, Bala Tampoe of the Ceylon Mercantile Union, broke away. He did so because of criticism which the party leadership had levelled at him and his union for not having participated in a general strike in 1980 [114]. Although Tampoe continued to regard himself as a Trotskyist, he was no longer associated with any of the factions of International Trotskyism.

The Trotskyists and the Communal Strife of the Mid-1980s

After the savage outburst of communal strife in August 1983 the Sinhalese-Tamil struggle degenerated into a virtual civil war. In the face of the UNP govemment’s increasingly harsh attitude toward the Tamil minority virtually all of the parties and groups professing allegiance to Trotskyism reacted more or less in conformity with their Trotskyist heritage.

A leader of the United Secretariat’s Sri Lanka affiliate, writing early in 1985, described the attitudes of the Trotskyists at that time:

In general all the Trotskyist factions and groups have adopted a fairly good position on the National question compared to various Stalinist and Maoist groups. The orthodox groups such as ours. . . has (sic) taken a hard line Leninist position and defended the struggle for self-determination of TAMIL speaking people. We have also attacked the militarist policies of the government and called for the withdrawal of troops from the North and East.

The Healyite group as well as the small Spartacists. . . have also adopted a similar position. Bala Tampoe has opposed the government policy and called for regional autonomy. The NSSP calls for the right of self determination and the only difference they have with us is that they called the armed Tamilgroups “terrorists” while we object to that term. We consider them as liberation fighters. Even the LSSP have fared better since they were voted out of Parliament. Although they oppose a sepa­rate Tamil state and criticize Tamil “ter­rorists” they put the main emphasis on attacking the govemment policies.

The writer commented also on the general situation in which the Trotskyists found themselves as a result of the communal strife.

There is closer cooperation among the Trotskyist groups and others who have a clear position of defending the Tamils. We are now being harassed by the govern­ment because of our opposition to the anti-Tamil and militarist policy of the govt. Our group as well as the Healyites, Spartacists and NSSP have been under constant surveillance and harassment. It is clear that we are fast approaching a situation of neo-fascism and clamp down on opposition. We could see a Latin American type situation soon. And then all democratic opposition will become impossible [115].

Conclusions on Ceylonese/Sri Lankan Trotskyism

The Trotskyist movement in Ceylon/Sri Lanka is unique. The country is one of the few in which avowed Trotskyists had substantial membership in the national legislature and the only one in which the Trotskyist party was the official opposition. It was also the only nation in which Trotskyists controlled a number of municipalities. The Ceylonese/Sri Lanka Trotskyists were the only ones who largely dominated the national trade union movement for several decades.

As a consequence of all of these factors Ceylon/Sri Lanka is the only nation in which Trotskyism has been faced with the serious problem of the conflict between rev­olutionary ethos and reformism. The rest of International Trotskyism regards the Lanka Sama Samaja Party as having decided this dilemma in favor of reformism and therefore has read the LSSP out of the movement.

However, like most of the rest of International Trotskyism, in Ceylon/Sri Lanka the movement has been cursed with a great deal of factionalism, particularly after 1964. Although by the early 1980s there were at least eight different factions, Upali Cooray is the authority for the judgment that only the original LSSP, the NSSP which broke away in 1977, the USEC’s Revolutionary Marxist Party, and the Socialist Worker Group were “of any significance.” [116]


[75] Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, University of California Press, Berkley, 1971, page 57
[76] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 87
[77] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 24
[78] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[79] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, pages 66-67
[80] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 82
[81] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 336
[82] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 83
[83] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 370
[84] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[85] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 370
[86] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[87] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973; and James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 370
[88] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[89] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 314
[90] Intercontinental Press, New York, May 23, 1977
[91] Robert Kearney: “The Marxist Parties of Ceylon”, in Paul Brass and M. P. Franda: Radical Politics in South Asia, Cambridge, Mass., 1973
[92] Intercontinental Press, New York, April 19, 1971, page 359
[93] Intercontinental Press, New York, July 11, 1977, page 800
[94] Intercontinental Press, New York, July 13, 1970, page 668
[95] Intercontinental Press, New York, November 24, 1969, page 1052
[96] Interview with Bala Tampoe published in Intercontinental Press, New York, April 11, 1977, page 388
[97] Interview with Bala Tampoe published in Intercontinental Press, New York, April 11, 1977, page 388
[98] Intercontinental Press, New York, April 19, 1971, page 359
[99] Intercontinental Press, New York, April 19, 1971, page 360
[100] Intercontinental Press, New York, April 26, 1971, pages 390-392
[101] Intercontinental Press, New York, April 10, 1972, May 22, 1972, October 30, 1972, November 6, 1972, and November 30, 1972
[102] See Intercontinental Press, New York, March 13, 1972, October 23, 1972, September 15, 1975, and November 13, 1978
[103] Intercontinental Press, New York, April 19, 1971, pages 358-360
[104] James Jupp: Sri Lanka — Thirld World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London, 1978, page 296
[105] Letter to author from Upali Cooray, February 25, 1985
[106] Edmund Samarakkody: “The Struggle for Trotskyism in Ceylon”, Spartacist, New York, winter 1973-74, page 16-18
[107] The Bulletin, New York, November 3, 1969
[108] Edmund Samarakkody: “The Struggle for Trotskyism in Ceylon”, Spartacist, New York, winter 1973-74, page 21
[109] Letter to author from Upali Cooray, January 31, 1983
[110] Spartacist, New York, Winter 1973-74, page 2
[111] Spartacist, New York, Summer 1981, pages 37-40
[112] Letter to author from Upali Cooray, January 31, 1983
[113] Workers Vanguard, New York, July 1, 1982
[114] Letter to author from Upali Cooray, January 31, 1983
[115] For reasons of personal security the writer shall remain anonymous here
[116] Letter to author from Upali Cooray, January 31, 1983

Last updated on: 13.2.2005