Leon Trotsky
Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Sri Lanka)

The formation of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party

3-1. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was founded in December 1935 by members of the Youth Leagues in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) which had opposed the limited constitutional reform of 1931 that provided for an elected State Council to advise the British colonial administration. Inspired by the mass independence movement in India, the Youth Leagues not only demanded an end to British rule, but, amid the social distress caused by the Great Depression, turned towards socialism.

3-2. The Youth Leagues had struck roots among workers and the rural poor. They challenged the control of A.E. Goonesinha over the trade union movement in Colombo, most effectively in the 1933 strike at the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills. Goonesinha had led significant union struggles in the 1920s, but in the 1930s, under conditions of mass unemployment, functioned as a strike breaker and purveyor of anti-immigrant and anti-Tamil racism. In 1934, the Youth Leagues launched a broad campaign to assist the victims of a malaria epidemic, which, compounded by the malnutrition caused by falling incomes and poor harvests, caused at least 100,000 deaths.

3-3. From the outset, the LSSP contained diverse elements. Its formation took place against the backdrop of mounting reaction centred in Europe. Hitler had come to power in 1933 in Germany as a result of the criminal policies of Stalin and the Third International whose ultra-left “Third Period” line, adopted in 1928, split and paralysed the German working class. In opposition to the Stalinist policy of denouncing the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as “social fascists”, Trotsky had fought for a united front of the German Communist Party and the SPD. The tactic of the united front was based on unity in action around concrete objectives, without any mixing of political programs, slogans or banners. Its purpose was to mobilise the strength of the working class against the Nazis and their storm troopers, while exposing the perfidy of the Social Democratic leadership. After the coming to power of the Nazis failed to provoke any criticism of Stalin’s policies within the Third International, Trotsky concluded that the working class must turn to the building of a new international—the Fourth International.

3-4. Prominent in the LSSP leadership was a layer of brilliant young people who had studied in America and Britain. Amid the intellectual ferment produced by the political upheavals in Europe and internationally, they were strongly influenced by Trotsky’s writings. The foremost among these was Philip Gunawardena, who studied in America before moving to Britain in 1928. He joined the British Communist Party but was expelled after criticising Stalin’s policies in India and China. Those who were part of his circle included Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, N.M. Perera and Vernon Gunasekere.

3-5. The LSSP, however, also included Stalinist sympathisers and radical bourgeois nationalists. This mixed membership was reflected in the party’s amorphous program. Its manifesto declared that the party’s fundamental aim was the establishment of a socialist society through “the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange of commodities.” It called for “the attainment of national independence” and “the abolition of economic and political inequality and oppression arising from differences of class, race, caste, creed and sex.” But the program did not identify the LSSP as a party of the working class nor did it elaborate a revolutionary program for achieving socialism. It made no attempt to address any of the issues confronting the international working class, above all, the emergence of Stalinism and its betrayals.

3-6. The emergence of the LSSP as a radical, anti-colonial party oriented to the toilers was a product of the economic backwardness of the Sri Lankan capitalist class and its political servility to British colonial rule. Even compared to the local capitalists in India who were prominent in the textile, jute, coal and steel industries, their counterparts in Sri Lanka played a minor economic role. The tea plantations—the dominant and most profitable industry—were British-owned. The main transport infrastructure—the docks and railways—had been built by British capital. The Sri Lankan bourgeoisie filled the less profitable gaps in the colonial economy—accumulating capital through their employment as servants of the colonial state, the farming of liquor rents, and their ownership of rubber and coconut estates and graphite mines.

3-7. Politics followed economics. The Ceylon National Congress (CNC) formed in 1919 was a pale reflection of the Indian National Congress (INC) established by the Indian bourgeoisie in 1885. Whereas the INC called for self-government as early as 1907 and in the aftermath of World War I launched mass campaigns for self-rule, the CNC was capable only of the most timid appeals for constitutional change. The CNC had far more in common with the backward-looking communal organisations of India—the Muslim League founded in 1907 and the All India Hindu Mahasabha in 1915—that, insofar as they opposed British rule at all, did so from the standpoint of preserving the privileges of the traditional Muslim and Hindu elites. In Sri Lanka, the CNC rested on the Buddhist revivalism of the Sinhala elites who were hostile to the island’s Tamil and Muslim minorities. The CNC split on communal lines in 1921 when the leadership refused to accede to the demands of its president, prominent Tamil leader Ponnambalam Arunachalam, over Tamil representation. The organisations of the Tamil and Muslim elites in Sri Lanka distinguished themselves from the CNC only by their even greater subservience to British rule.

3-8. The abiding fear of all sections of the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie was the emergence of a powerful, combative working class. The proletariat was concentrated in the tea plantations to which Tamil-speaking workers had been brought from southern India as indentured labour. By 1921, plantation workers and their families numbered around 500,000 out of the island’s total population of 4.5 million. An urban proletariat also developed in Colombo especially in the docks, railway workshops and emerging industries. In India, the INC under Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi sought in a limited and tightly-controlled manner to appeal to the anti-colonial sentiment and socio-economic grievances of the masses, so as to pressure the British for concessions. In Sri Lanka, the CNC did not call for independence from British rule and waged no public campaigns for either political or social reforms. Its organic hostility to the masses was reflected in its fierce opposition to the introduction of universal suffrage on the recommendation of the British government’s Donoughmore Commission as part of the 1931 constitutional reform.

3-9. Thus, in the 1930s, as layers of the intelligentsia were radicalised by the oppressive conditions in Sri Lanka, the political upheavals in Europe and the growing danger of war, their views found no outlet within the Colombo political establishment. Unlike India, no Communist Party had formed in Sri Lanka. The only party based on the working class was the Labour Party formed in 1928 by the Colombo trade union boss Goonesinha under the tutelage of the British Labour Party. It did not support independence or advocate socialism and was deeply hostile to Marxism. The LSSP thus became the political home for various tendencies—those who were drawn towards Trotskyism, as well as militant bourgeois nationalists and reformers for whom a socialistic or even Marxist colouration was a necessary means of approaching the masses.

3-10. It was a measure of the extreme class tensions at the time in Sri Lanka and internationally that those who were thrust into the LSSP leadership were the most audacious and revolutionary elements oriented to the working class—the so-called Trotskyist-group or T-group. Colvin R. de Silva became the LSSP’s first president and Leslie Goonewardene its first secretary. Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera were elected to the State Council in February 1936 and used their position to emphatically declare the LSSP’s opposition to any support for Britain in the looming world war. The LSSP gained support in the Colombo working class through its determined defence of basic rights and conditions in the teeth of violent opposition by Goonesinha and his union apparatus. The failure of bourgeois parties to advocate, let alone fight for, even limited social reforms or democratic rights, including freedom from colonial rule, meant that those tasks fell to the emerging representatives of the proletariat. The LSSP campaigned for and won a series of partial reforms, including changes to the oppressive village headman system, the use of local languages in the courts and unemployment relief.

3-11. In 1937, the LSSP sponsored a tour by prominent Congress Socialist Party leader Kamaladevi Chattopadyaya from India, who addressed a rally of 35,000 people at Galle Face Green in Colombo. A young Australian, Mark Bracegirdle, a planter’s apprentice who had joined the LSSP, spoke alongside her in the plantation areas, denouncing the exploitation of tea estate workers. The colonial administration’s attempt to deport Bracegirdle turned into a David and Goliath confrontation with the LSSP that electrified the island. In the face of overwhelming public opposition, a censure of the governor in the State Council and a Supreme Court order against the deportation, the colonial authorities were compelled to retreat, greatly enhancing the LSSP’s political stature.

3-12. However, the most fundamental issues facing the LSSP were bound up with international events. From its founding in 1935, the LSSP had taken no public stand on the life-and-death political struggle being waged by Trotsky and his co-thinkers against Stalinism and for the building of the Fourth International. Its only international affiliation was with the Congress Socialist Party in India, formed in 1934 as a loose socialistic faction within the INC. However, between 1935 and 1939, the LSSP leadership was increasingly driven into conflict with the Stalinist Third International and was compelled to grapple with the decisive international issues of the period. The so-called T-group was deeply disturbed by the Popular Front politics advocated by Stalin that resulted in devastating defeats in the 1930s of the semi-insurrectionary French strike movement and the Spanish revolution. The “Popular Front” was the diametrical opposite of the United Front that Trotsky had advocated in Germany. In the name of the fight against fascism and the defence of democracy, it involved a common political platform with opportunist and openly bourgeois parties that shackled the working class to the bourgeoisie, private property and the state, and blocked its independent revolutionary activity. As part of the Popular Front policy and its manoeuvres with the “democratic” powers of France and Britain, the Stalinist bureaucracy abandoned the Third International’s previous support for full independence for the colonies of those countries; and, in doing so, betrayed the developing anti-colonial revolution.

3-13. Privately the LSSP leadership was hostile to the monstrous Moscow Show Trials of 1936–1938 that were targeted at the Trotskyist movement but also served as the pretext for the systematic murder of hundreds of thousands of socialists, including Bolshevik leaders, Red Army commanders, scientists and artists—the finest representatives of the generation that had carried out the Russian Revolution. The LSSP leaders were also strongly influenced by Trotsky’s profound analysis of Stalinism in The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where Is It Going?, which first became available in English in 1938. It was, however, the outbreak of World War II that proved decisive in the LSSP’s turn to Trotskyism and the establishment of a section of the Fourth International in India and Sri Lanka.