The Decline of the LSSP in 20th Century Sri Lanka: Sivasambu’s Question

Fr l-to-r= Philip, Colvin R, NM and Reggie Perera

ABOUT Nathan Sivasambu: Nathan Sivasambu is an old-school Trotskyite and a Sri Lankan to the core. After his undergraduate degree from the University of Ceylon in the 1950s he migrated to England. He has sustained his interest in island politics as well as the literary world associated with the Bloomsbury Group and Leonard Woolf. His batchelor-flat near Russell Square placed him close to the Bloomsbury arena in London… and the British Museum as well as SOAS and its Sri Lankan stock of books.

He has been a key organiser of discussions devoted to Sri Lankan literary and political issues at the “Great Court” café within the British Museum in recent decades — with such literary figures and musical virtuosos as Romesh Gunasekera and Rohan de Saram among the participants. It is as ecumenical and non-communal a collective as anyone would wish for and I felt privileged to attend a gathering a few years back.

Nathan and I have been in regular touch by internet mail ever since. He has recently tried to prod me to pursue an important historical issue: the reasons for the decline of the LSSP and the ideological currents which this party introduced in 1935 and sustained in prominent fashion till the 1950s.

As I am embroiled within other topics and felt that my competence in this realm was inadequate, I sent a circular to those whom I deemed capable of presenting thoughtful answers. I now have a Memorandum from Vinod Moonesinghe and can kick off the debate … with heartfelt thanks to Vinod.

A NOTE from NATHAN SIVASAMBU in London, Dec 2019

Dear Michael, Why not turn attention to the collapse of the LSSP? They entered the SLFP coalitionin June 1964 and have been wiped off the Parliamentary map since 1977. Bala Tampoe pointed out here [in London], at a Seminar I convened for him, that they hadcommitted themselves without any reservations to the electorate, and the electorate has rejected them.

Since 1994 they have to depend on being nominated to Parliament by SLFP. The complete collapse of the LSSP is one of the major political events of our time. The collapse is historic.

Very good wishes Nathan

The 1947 General Strike led by the LSSP ....from Mike Harman article

Vinod

A Response from Vinod Moonesinghe, mid-December 2019 … with highlighting emphasis from The Editor, Thuppahi

There is no simple answer to this question. However, to reduce it to a question of electoral politics or coalition with the SLFP is too simplistic.

In answer to what, according to Nathan Sivasambu, Bala Tampoe said at a seminar about theLSSP embracing electoral politics and the electorate rejecting them, it should be pointed out that the LSSP(R), which was Bala’s split-off from the LSSP, got annihilated at the polls and disintegrated long, long before the LSSP’s demise.

As for the LSSP “embracing electoral politics”, this was simply not the case. The LSSP’s strategy was to use the electoral process to further the cause of the revolution. In introducing employees’ councils to state corporations, the LSSP’s aim was to create organs of dual power. In creating the Hansa regiment in 1977, the LSSP was attempting to form the core of a revolutionary army — it was strengthened with party cadres who had been purged from the [Sri Lankan] Army following the so-called “Coup” attempt of 1966. The fact that the LSSP refused to convert itself to an electoral-based party from a cadre party (as proposed by Hector Abhayawardena) shows that it had not “embraced” a solely electoral policy.

However, to ignore the electorate, in a situation in which bourgeois democracy had been established for decades, would have been madness.

Then we come to the reasons for its decline. In the mid-1970s, Sri Lanka faced a food crisis at a time of world food shortages) combined with the oil shock, at a time when the plantations companies’ disinvestment from Sri Lanka to East Africa had resulted in a decline in the number of yielding plants (due to lack of replanting) — which resulted in a ten-fold increase in the trade deficit. The Left was blamed for the subsequent shortages and hardships. Nevertheless, the Left retained much of its electoral strength, although wiped out in Parliament. The percentage the Left Front got in 1977 exceeded that which the JVP ever received.

The Left continued to be strong, despite the lack of parliamentary representation, because of its strength in the Trade Unions. The ill-advised 1980 general strike saw the near annihilation of the LSSP’s strength among organised workers. This was compounded  by the collapse of the industrial sector after 1977 — about 100,000 workers lost their jobs because of the “opening up” of the economy, most of them in cutting-edge manufacturing industries such as electronics and tea machinery — which resulted in the elimination of LSSP representation in private industry.

The loss of the bulk of its trade union base meant the LSSP was only left with an electoral alternative — and it was weak electorally. The obvious alternative would have been to back the candidacy of Hector Kobbekaduwa (as the Communist Party did, profiting immensely). Even the NSSP’s Vasudeva Nanayakkara asked the voters to cast their second preferences for Kobbekaduwa. Dr Colvin R de Silva’s candidacy, together with his “law point,” was seen as detrimental to the campaign to defeat JR’s incipient fascism. The LSSP lost huge swathes of support and goodwill, especially after JR jailed Vijaya Kumaranatunga and his so-called “Naxalite” colleagues, and after he banned the NSSP, CP and JVP after the anti-Tamilpogrom of 1983.

The next blow came with the Indo-Lanka Accord. In a fairly transparent exercise in regional hegemony, the Indian state imposed its will on Sri Lanka. JR was told that unless he signed, Indian troops would be in Colombo in 48 hours “raping your women” — these were the words used by MH Mohammed in describing it, and JR mentioned how he got bullied to several opposition politicians. The popular uprising which took place against it was an expression of nationalism, not of anti-Tamil feeling (as was made out). In this situation, the LSSP’s support for the Accord was seen as going against the principle of Sri Lankan independence and sovereignty which it had championed since 1935.

Nevertheless, the LSSP, in alliance with the SLMP and CP, managed to make some headway in the widely-boycotted Provincial Council polls. However, its stance on the Accord lost it  considerable support in the old working-class and plantation belt, from Kaduwela to Deniyaya.  This meant that, when it was targeted by the JVP’s assassination teams, the dead received little sympathy. When it went into alliance with Chandrika’s government, acquiescing in her neo-liberal policies, it lost all credibility. Unlike in 1970-75, it made no attempt to defend working class gains, or to push Left-wing agendas, but simply went along with the privatisations and the open corruption. Its supporters transferred to other parties, such as the MEP and JVP.

In the final analysis, the key issue was the destruction of the trade unions in 1980. With them, the working-class culture of the workplace disappeared, as well as the predeliction of the workers for class struggle. This laid the foundations for the emergence of nationalist cross-class solidarity instead of class solidarity. Nowadays, young people do not think in terms of class, but as individuals who want to get ahead. Urban gentrification has ripped the heart out of working-class neighbourhoods, leaving only the petty-bourgeoisie and the lumpen proletariat. In this atmosphere, the prospect for socialism is weak.

**** ****

 ALSO NOTE

Vinod Moonesinghe: “Bracegirdle The Young Anglo-Australian behind Sri Lanka’s Independence struggle,” 21 May 2017, https://roar.media/english/life/history/bracegirdle-the-young-anglo-australian-behind-sri-lankas-independence-struggle/

Mike Harman: “The 1947 General Strike in Ceylon,” 12 February 2018,  https://libcom.org/library/1947-general-strike-ceylon-sri-lanka

70-symbolic-buring-of-dc-bill the symbolic burning of the District Council Bill by Mrs B and her SLFP Coalition in 1967 (CHECK DATE)

An ESSAY on the DECLINE OF THE LSSP, by Leelananda De Silva, in The Island, 4 January 2020, entitled “The Demise of the LSSP: Some Points to Ponder”

I refer to the feature “The demise of the LSSP” in your issue of December 29. Let me list a few points which I consider led to the demise of the LSSP.

1. The LSSP was never an indigenous movement. It’s early influencers were from the West –  the British Labour Party and the Trade Union Movement in England; the Soviet Union, it’s Communist Party, the split between Stalin and Trotsky, issues such as Trotskism and the Permanent Revolution and such arcane matters. For most of its early life, the LSSP partner was the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India. With a name like that, you do not need enemies. Unlike Gandhi’s and Nehru’s Congress, or Mao’s peasant revolution in China, there was nothing Sri Lankan at that time in the LSSP.  The UNP and the SLFP were genuine indigenous parties.

2. The LSSP was focused on the urban proletariat in Colombo. Sri Lanka was primarily an agricultural country, and there was no industry to speak of. The LSSP never intended to reach out to the peasant.

3. LSSP had a powerful base in the Trade Union Movement, but the most powerful trade union was that of Thondaman and The Ceylon Worker’s Congress which represented the ethnic Indian minority on the estates. 

4. When party politics came into Sri Lanka at the time of independence, the LSSP had no choice but to get involved in electoral politics. Between 1947 and 1960, it did not do too badly, especially due to the impressive leaders it had at that time. But after the March 1960 election, when the LSSP tried to go it alone and obtained 10 seats, the days of the LSSP were numbered. Then between 1960 and 1975, the LSSP had to be associated with the SLFP to have any influence.

5. The most pathetic moment of the life of the LSSP was its active engagement in killing off the secular constitution of Sri Lanka in 1972. It was instrumental in breaking up the secular constitution and removing the independence of the judiciary and the public service, which began the decline of democratic processes in Sri Lanka, and the gradual rise of authoritarianism.

Leelananda De Silva

 

2 Comments

Filed under authoritarian regimes, British colonialism, communal relations, constitutional amendments, democratic measures, economic processes, historical interpretation, island economy, language policies, Left politics, life stories, politIcal discourse, power politics, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, working class conditions, world events & processes

2 responses to “The Decline of the LSSP in 20th Century Sri Lanka: Sivasambu’s Question

  1. Chandre Dharmawardana

    Bracegirdle issue and later, ambivalent revolutionary attitudes & the abandonment of Language-Parity of Status within the changed demographic structure of the unions.

    There are two issues that I like to comment on. The first of these is the Bracegirdle incident. The second is the move from being a revolutionary party to an ostensibly parliamentary party which is linked with the shedding of the LSSP language policy
    The highly conservative members of the Sri Lankan establishment of the time of Bracegirdle, be it GGPonnambalam, OliverG-DS or the Kandyan Nugawela groups, reacted to the Marxists and to their imported activists like Bracegirdle in much the same way as the public reacts today to the ISIS, Zahran and the fiery Arab fundamentalist teachers brought to Sri Lanka by them.
    The government feared that the “Bolsheviks” would totally disrupt the main-stay of the economy of the time and reacted strongly in two ways. (a) They hardened their attitude to the potential citizenship for Indian labour as they feared that they are potential Marxists (even then the Indian citizenship act, allegedly drawn up by Vaithyalingam with the concurrence of DS and GGP was very generous compared to what is available to Hispanic workers in the USA or Arab workers in the EU today. I think citizenship was available to any Indian who had a sufficient number of years of continuous residency in the estates).
    (b) when WW Two broke out, they banned the Marxists who went underground and escaped to India. These acts made them into heroes; and the post-war period was their best time.
    But under SWRD, although the MEP (Philip G) was “in the government”, it strangled the government by continuously keeping the port and several other key institutions on strike. Incipient local industries (e.g., Velona factory in Moratuwa) were totally undermined by continuous trade union activity. The MEP and LSSP believed that SWRD’s government was the “Menshevik phase” and that they will soon become the government by a revolutionary transformation, as was presumably dictated by “historical materialism”.

    They did not, and could not understand the power of nationalism and the rising star of the ITAK as Marxism is ideologically too narrow to handle such developments. Interestingly, the LSSP, in dealing with the language question that arose out of the communal cauldron stirred up by GGP, SWRD, SJV, and JRJ put forward the policy of “parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil”. Some of us who were young people then were very impressed by what was presented to us as a very principled and fair stand taken by the LSSP. Many of us in the upper school (sixth forms) at Royal College in the fifties were well imbibed with Marxist literature and the writings of GBS, Sydney and Beatrice Webb (who gave a rosy picture of Stalinist Russia) and other British socialists though we knew what Bertrand Russell and Koestler had written. The simplistic analysis of the Communist Manifesto rang true to us then. We thought it heroic that the LSSP should follow the parity of status policy even though it put the LSSP at a clear electoral disadvantage. So, many of us became fellow travelers of the LSSP though not necessarily endorsing its revolutionary slogans. Some like CB Wijedoru was a student member and activist in the LSSP.

    It was much later, after the 1970 landslide victory of Sirima B and the Left combine that the logic behind the LSSP policy was made clear to me. This was also the time when the left split to the revolutionary wing with people like Merril Fernando (Moratuwa) in the R group, while NM and others joining the “Saari-pota” as it was derogatorily characterized by the revolutionary group. Dr. Osmund Jayaratne, a member of the central committee of of the LSSP, and also CB Wijedoru, another high ranking LSSPer explained to me that the parity of status, as well as the new policy of going with the SLFP and Sinhala only, are all “correctly thought-out tactics” to achieve “the objective”.

    In effect, in the 1950s-1960s, struggles launched through the trade unions were the main activist methodology of the Left. These unions in fact had a virtually majoritarian Tamil membership, and parity of status was the ONLY POSSIBLE policy given that demographic which was the opposite of the demographic found in the general population.

    As Osmand J stated, “we are a revolutionary party, and so the disadvantage electoral outcome is irrelevant to us. Also, when we capture power we need the support of the estate workers. So our language policy is based on such considerations -parity of status is the correct policy”.

    But after 1856, the Sinhala language bill took its effect, and by 1970 the unions had also changed in character. Although even then the unions had a higher percentage of Tamil members than in the general population, the percentage of Sinhalese had become majoritarian. The policy of parity was less viable even within trade unions. So, dropping the “one language, two-nations” adage of Colvin, they embraced the policy of “one-language-the language of the majority for one country”. Colvin’s constitution even removed the concessions to minorities found in the previous constitution. So, the revolutionary wing of the LSSP, which I think continued to hold on to the “parity of status” policy, had no power either at the polls or at the extra-parliamentary barricades. Those who followed NM and Colvin survived for another few years.

    Thus it was rather disappointing to realize that the “principled stand” on “parity of status” was not based on some concept of fair play towards the minorities. Also, parity of status was not explained in detail. Clearly, one would consider that any citizen should be given an opportunity to conduct his business with the state in his/her own language. Even a Chinese or Arab speaker should be provided with a translator in those rare instances when such micro-minority person turns up. Today this can be done automatically with cell-phone technology where there is translation from one language to another using artificial intelligence implementation (now available in most browsers and google).

    But this concept of fair-play was not the main basis of the LSSP’s language policy, although many leftists are genuinely less communal minded than right-wingers.

    However, although the LSSP shed its revolutionary trade-union action, it felt compelled to sacrifice its workers in 1980 to JRJ’s calculated operation that copied what Margret Thatcher had enacted in the UK to break the unions. The LSSP leaders were too doctrinaire and too carried along by their own empty slogans to take defensive action and be restrained. The 1983 pogrom against the Tamils probably started spontaneously after the killing of 13 soldiers by Prabhakaran. But JRJ quickly saw it as an opportunity to kill the left by blaming it on the “Naxalites”, and so allowed it to burn on, when organized gangs (allegedly with links to Cyril Matthew) took to the streets. Another unconfirmed story is that Prabhakaran also so in it an opportunity to break the Colombo Tamils away from the UNP government, and so he too put his finger into it, using Nadesan who was an SP in Nugegoda at the time (see an article by Sebastian Rasalingam on the 1983 Pogrom). But these are unconfirmed reports. Nevertheless, JRJ took a final swipe at the left.

    Today erstwhile left intellectuals like Kumar David and Wickremabahu Karunaratne vociferously supported Sarath Fonseka in 2012, and they currently support the UNP in most matters. The JVP follows post-modernist analyses and many neo-liberal policies to become known in the Sinhala newspapers as “Rathu-Ali.”
    So did (and does) Tony Blair who was invited by the previous UNP government to give a talk at the Kadirgamar Institute.

  2. Dash de Soysa

    i think the LSSP (founded by my grand uncle Leslie Goonewardena and three others) though uncompromising on independence were too late to profit from ‘nationism’ and derailing from principles.
    (The first party in SL was the Labour Party est 1928 and probably not the LSSP 1935. The young Phillip Gunewardena was highly impressed by the young Lanka League, est 1915, the birth of ‘Socialism’ in SL. These were led by Gunasinghe and CHZ Fernando, a grandson of CH de Soysa and unsung heroes of this movement).

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