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

The LSSP’s political backsliding

14-1. The LSSP degenerated rapidly after 1953, aided and abetted at every stage by the Pabloite International Secretariat. In the space of just over a decade, the party abandoned any struggle for Trotskyism, embraced Sinhala communalism and betrayed the working class by entering a bourgeois SLFP-led coalition government in 1964, thereby assuming political responsibility for the management of the capitalist state. The LSSP’s degeneration was intimately bound up at every step with its political adaptation to Bandaranaike and the SLFP—that is, to the communal politics of Sinhala populism that, in the early stages at least, were laced with anti-imperialist and socialistic demagogy. The inability of the LSSP to take a firm, principled stand against the SLFP was connected to its reversion to the petty-bourgeois radical traditions of Samasamajism. It was no longer a politically homogeneous party. Layers of former BLPI members were still rooted in the traditions of proletarian internationalism that had been graphically demonstrated in the huge rally in 1948 against the fraud of the new “independent” state. However, the increasingly nationalist orientation was determined by party’s rightwing led by N.M. Perera, to which ex-BLPI figures such Colvin R. de Silva and Leslie Goonewardene acquiesced. Step by step, Perera overcame internal resistance to an open embrace of the SLFP and its Sinhala populism.

14-2. In preparing for the 1956 election, Bandaranaike sought to mobilise layers of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie—small businessmen, Buddhist monks and ayurvedic doctors—aggrieved by their marginalisation under the British colonial administration. Drawing on the demagogy of the earlier Buddhist revivalist movement, Bandaranaike argued that the Sinhalese were “a unique race” that had to be accorded the dominant position in the country’s affairs. In 1955, the SLFP abandoned its demand that both Sinhala and Tamil replace English as the country’s official language. Instead it adopted a “Sinhala only” policy that would make Sinhala the sole official language—that is, in the courts, public sector employment, the education system and all official matters. Bandaranaike also promised to accord Buddhism a special official standing. By proposing to make Sinhala supremacism the guiding principle of state policy, the SLFP relegated ethnic Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims to a second-class status. To provide his Sinhala populism with socialist and anti-imperialist window-dressing, Bandaranaike brought Philip Gunawardena’s VLSSP into his Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) or People’s United Front for the 1956 election.

14-3. The LSSP opposed the Sinhala-only policy and defended the democratic rights of the Tamil minority despite violent attacks by Sinhala racists. The arguments used by LSSP leaders, however, betrayed a marked shift from the BLPI’s proletarian internationalism. The LSSP not only accepted the legitimacy of the Sri Lankan state but also argued that the Sinhala-only policy would undermine the nation. Their opposition was based on defending the unity of the nation, not on fighting for the unity of the working class. Speaking in parliament in October 1955, N.M. Perera warned: “We shall have a perpetual division of the country, we shall never get a united Ceylon, and we shall have a tremendous amount of bloodshed which will lead us nowhere, and, in the end, this country will either become a colony or a plaything of interested big powers.”[1] It was not a stand taken on principle. Despite Bandaranaike’s “Sinhala-only” policy, the LSSP struck an electoral “no-contest” pact with the SLFP—thus giving credence to this bourgeois party as a progressive alternative to the UNP. After the SLFP won a sweeping victory, the LSSP adopted a stance of “responsive co-operation” towards the new Bandaranaike government and in 1956 and 1957 voted for the Throne Speech outlining government policy for the year. It only became critical of Bandaranaike with the emergence of strikes from late 1957.

14-4. The thrust of the new SLFP-led government was the assertion of Sinhala dominance in all spheres, provoking protests by Tamils, and vicious counter-pogroms by Sinhala extremists who regarded any attempt on Bandaranaike’s part to reach a compromise with the Tamil elites as a betrayal. The limited nationalisations carried out by his government expanded the role of the state and thus job opportunities for the Sinhalese majority. The extension of public education and health was aimed at consolidating a base among the party’s Sinhala rural constituency. The government, however, was incapable of meeting the basic needs of workers and the rural masses. This led to strikes and protests. The anti-working class character of the SLFP-led government soon became apparent in its strengthening of the Public Security Act in March 1958 followed shortly after by the imposition of a 10-month state of emergency. Having exploited the politics of Sinhala communalism to develop a rural base for the SLFP and to divide the working class, Bandaranaike fell victim to his own creation. He was assassinated by a Buddhist extremist in September 1959. The rightwing of his own party, who feared that the government was incapable of containing a growing working class movement, was also implicated. The same rightwing had already insisted on the dismissal of Philip Gunawardena as government minister. Gunawardena appropriated the name of MEP for his own new Sinhala racialist party.

14-5. The year 1960 marked a further shift to the right by the LSSP. In the first of two elections in March, the LSSP abandoned any semblance of revolutionary Marxism and embraced the parliamentary road to socialism. Declaring the UNP and SLFP to be completely discredited, the party campaigned for “a Samasamajist government”—through parliament. It significantly watered down its previous stance on the language issue—dropping its call for parity between Sinhala and Tamil—and on citizenship—now declaring the issue could be negotiated between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments, without any reference to plantation workers. The Pabloite International Secretariat enthusiastically endorsed the LSSP’s parliamentary cretinism and adaptation to communal politics, describing its election campaign as “a decisive struggle for power”.

14-6. Far from winning office, the LSSP gained fewer seats than in the 1956 election, provoking a crisis in the party. N.M. Perera took the opportunity to propose for the first time that the party prepare to enter a capitalist government with the SLFP. His resolution was passed at a party congress in May 1960, but was thwarted by the election of a Central Committee in which his rightwing was in a minority. Nevertheless, when the short-lived UNP government collapsed and new elections took place in July 1960, the LSSP reached a no-contest agreement with the SLFP. With the election of a new SLFP government led by Bandaranaike’s widow, the LSSP supported its overall policies by voting for its first Throne Speech and its first budget.

14-7. Only now did the Pabloite International Secretariat (IS) start to raise tepid criticisms. It had not objected to the LSSP’s previous no-contest pact and “responsive cooperation” with the SLFP in 1956. The only IS criticism of the LSSP’s parliamentary road to socialism in the March 1960 election was that it had not been successful and a “profound examination” was needed to ascertain the reasons for the electoral defeat. However, with N.M. Perera proposing to enter a capitalist government, the IS began a political cover up for its own gross opportunism. It belatedly declared that “the no-contest agreement” carried the danger of “creating illusions about the nature of the SLFP among the great masses.” The Sixth World Congress condemned the LSSP’s support for the Throne Speech and government budget. But the IS did not rule out giving “critical support to a non-working class government (whether middle class or capitalist) in a colonial or semi-colonial country” and, in so doing endorsed, the LSSP’s rightward drift and provided the rationalisation for its continuing opportunism.

14-8. Pabloism also sanctioned the LSSP’s accommodation to the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and China. In 1957, in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, an LSSP delegation including Edmund Samarakkody and Colvin R. de Silva visited Moscow as official guests and made no mention of the Soviet army’s suppression of Hungarian workers. In the same year, the LSSP newspaper published an editorial entitled “Tribute to Chou En-lai” and hailed the Chinese foreign minister and his fellow Stalinists for “the tremendous sacrifices made by these men who led the Chinese Revolution to victory.” The American Socialist Workers Party criticised the LSSP in an editorial that declared, “Chou En Lai and the Chinese Communist Party did not lead ‘the Chinese Communist Party to victory,’ nor can they legitimately be identified with that victory.” It called on the upcoming LSSP delegation to China to strongly demand the release of the Chinese Trotskyists, which the LSSP leaders flatly refused to do.


Blows against the Empire, p. 169.