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

The collapse of the second coalition government

20-1. In the wake of the 1971 JVP uprising, the SLFP-LSSP-CP government confronted a mounting economic and political crisis and responded by widening state repression and inflaming Sinhala communalism. In 1972, Constitutional Affairs Minister Colvin R. de Silva, who in 1956 had opposed the “Sinhala Only” policy, played the central role in devising a new constitution that formally enshrined Buddhism as the state religion and Sinhala as the only official language. Discriminatory measures were enacted against Tamils in public sector employment and for university entrance. The Tamil parties—the Federal Party, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress and the main plantation workers’ organisation, the Ceylon Workers’ Congress—bitterly opposed the new constitution and formed the Tamil United Front (TUF), which was transformed in 1975 into the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).

20-2. The oil shocks and global recession of 1973–74 impacted heavily on Sri Lanka. Soaring commodity prices, particularly for oil and food imports, produced an acute foreign exchange crisis. Finance Minister N.M. Perera extended national economic regulation to include strict controls on food imports, a state monopoly of rice transport, and a wage freeze. These policies produced acute economic hardship among the working class and rural masses. In the plantations, unemployment, underemployment and soaring prices led to extreme poverty and hundreds of deaths by starvation. Bandaranaike reacted by accelerating the forced repatriation of plantation workers through an agreement with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1974. Widespread hostility to the coalition government produced a rising tide of working-class militancy.

20-3. The clarification of the RCL’s political line in 1970 proved critical for the party’s interventions in the developing mass movement. Its demand that the LSSP and CP break from the SLFP and fight for a workers’ and peasants’ government and socialist policies met up with the sentiments of significant layers of workers who were deeply hostile to the coalition government. The party was able to build significant trade union factions in the Ratmalana railway workshops, the central bank, the government press, the state-owned Thulhiriya textile factory, and, reflecting the RCL’s fight to unify Sinhala and Tamil workers, the Ceynor factory on the Jaffna peninsula.

20-4. As the government’s crisis worsened, Bandaranaike resorted to anti-democratic methods. The SLFP-led government had exploited its overwhelming majority in the 1972 Constituent Assembly to arbitrarily extend its term of office by two years to 1977. It kept in place the state of emergency, imposed during the JVP uprising, and used the emergency regulations to muzzle the press and political opponents. Amid growing differences over economic policy, Bandaranaike dismissed the LSSP ministers in 1975 and began to take the first steps towards opening up the island to foreign investment.

20-5. The period from the expulsion of the LSSP from the government in September 1975 to its devastating electoral defeat in July 1977 was one of acute political crisis for the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie—part of the revolutionary upheavals that had taken place internationally since 1968. Bandaranaike’s austerity policies produced a mounting strike wave in which the RCL played an increasingly prominent role. Concerned at the RCL’s influence, the government publicly attacked the party in parliament. The climax came in late 1976. In November, widespread student demonstrations over the shooting of a student at Peradeniya university were joined by tens of thousands of workers. From December 1976, a general strike movement began with a stoppage in the Ratmalana railway workshops that quickly spread throughout the railways. The government banned the strike but this only fuelled further stoppages by other public sector workers. For weeks, the fate of the Bandaranaike government hung in the balance.

20-6. The survival of bourgeois rule in the face of this determined offensive by the working class rested on the LSSP, CP and LSSP (R) leaders who blocked any development of the mass movement into a struggle for power. The CP remained in the government and supported police state measures against strikers, only leaving the ruling coalition in February 1977 after the strikes were crushed. The LSSP leaders declared that the strike movement was “non-political” and refused to support the striking workers or make any call for the bringing down of the Bandaranaike government. The Ceylon Mercantile Union, under LSSP (R) leader Bala Tampoe, refused to take part in the strike and opposed the RCL’s efforts to mobilise CMU members.

20-7. The LSSP (R) and its various breakaway groups played the critical role in attacking the RCL’s demand for the LSSP and CP to fight for a workers’ and peasants’ government and socialist policies. Tulsiri Andradi criticised the RCL for creating illusions in the reformist parties—the LSSP and the CP—by demanding they take power. The RCL’s demand, however, was not aimed at promoting these parties, but rather at breaking their grip over socialist-minded layers of the working class who still grudgingly looked to the LSSP and CP for leadership. Andradi’s left-sounding denunciation was in fact an evasion of the essential political task of exposing the LSSP and CP and thus left workers in the hands of these parties. The betrayal of this mass movement by the LSSP, CP and LSSP (R) paved the way for the UNP to return to power. At the July 1977 election, the coalition parties suffered a crushing defeat: the UNP won 140 of the 168 seats, the SLFP retained just 8 seats, and the LSSP and CP lost all their seats.

20-8. As the RCL was deepening its political fight against the old leaderships in the Sri Lankan working class, the WRP was turning away from such a struggle in Britain. The bringing down of the Heath government in Britain in 1974 as the result of a determined strike by British miners led to a minority Labour government. Having founded the party the year before on little more than militant working-class anti-Toryism, the WRP faced a political crisis and the loss of hundreds of members as it now confronted the need to combat residual illusions of workers in social democracy. These illusions were articulated by an unprincipled, right-wing faction headed by Alan Thornett, a Central Committee member and leading trade unionist. It argued that the Labour government would come into conflict with the bourgeoisie. Rather than carry out a struggle to clarify the class nature of Labourism for its members and through them the working class, the WRP expelled the Thornett group without political discussion. The WRP’s abandonment of the patient fight to politically educate workers was signalled by its call in July 1975 for the bringing down of the Labour government in conditions where the Labour Party still had the allegiance of most workers and the revolutionary party was in no position to offer an alternative. Behind this left-sounding ultimatum, the WRP was relinquishing the political struggle against the Labour leadership and adapting to a section of the trade union bureaucracy.

20-9. The WRP also attempted to foist a similar stance on the RCL. In a letter to Balasuriya in September 1975, Mike Banda declared: “I am afraid that the propagandist tail is wagging the Marxist dog again. This is reflected in your press where a lot of space is given to exposing the revisionists (correctly) but not enough is being done to develop, to concretise the abstractions—through a struggle for power.” Banda called on the RCL to drop its demands on the LSSP and CP, warning that the party would “end up capitulating to the centrists”, and to call for the bringing down of the SLFP government. The RCL persisted with its exposure of the LSSP and CP through the demand that they fight for a workers’ government. Moreover, the RCL’s so-called “propagandism”— Balasuriya’s polemics against the various Pabloite groups, including his book-length reply to Andradi in 1975 entitled: In Defence of the Fourth International: A Reply to an anti-Trotskyist Charlatan—were the essential preparation for the RCL’s intervention into the working class.

20-10. The upheavals of 1975–77 proved to be a decisive political test. Based on the 1970 clarification of its political line, the RCL emerged with its standing greatly enhanced among class conscious workers. It had been the only party that fought to mobilise the working class against the Bandaranaike government on a socialist program. All the fragments of the LSSP (R) led by Bala Tampoe, Samarakkody and Andradi had been found wanting and would all but vanish from Sri Lankan politics in the next few years. Their place was taken by the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) formed in 1978 by ex-LSSP members. The NSSP founders had supported the 1964 betrayal, the second coalition government and its communal policies, remained in the LSSP throughout the strike wave and only left after the 1977 electoral rout. The NSSP, as its name implied, was simply the old opportunist Samasamajism with a new face. It continued the LSSP’s politics of class collaboration and coalitionism, and, quite appropriately, became the Sri Lankan section of the Pabloite United Secretariat in 1981.

20-11. The rise and fall of the Bandaranaike government in Sri Lanka found striking parallels elsewhere in South Asia. In the midst of the economic crisis of the 1970s, the governments of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan and Indira Gandhi in India sought to bind the working class and oppressed toilers to the bourgeoisie through pseudo-socialist rhetoric and populist nationalism. Both governments initially enacted very limited reforms then came into headlong collision with the working class and turned to authoritarian methods to suppress dissent. In Pakistan and India, the various Stalinist parties played the critical role in preventing the working class from challenging these supposedly left regimes, thereby enabling the bourgeoisie to regain the initiative. In the space of five months in 1977, Bhutto, Gandhi and Bandaranaike all fell from power. Bourgeois politics then shifted sharply right, although in the case of Indira Gandhi, she herself came to embody this shift when restored to power in 1980. In Pakistan, Bhutto was ousted in an army coup led by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and encouraged by Washington. Bhutto, Gandhi and Bandaranaike left a reactionary legacy—their “left” populism, laden as it was with chauvinism, and appeals to national and religio-communal identities, sowed the seeds for a qualitative escalation of ethno-communalist politics across South Asia in the 1980s.