Major Political Strands & Challenges in 20th Century Sri Lanka

Uditha Devapriya, in The Island, 29 January 2022,  where the title is Socialist revolution or bourgeois compromise?” …. with highlighting being the imposition of The Editor, Thuppahi

For the oppressed masses of the Third World, the establishment of UNCTAD and the proposal for a New International Economic Order marked the high point of 20th century multilateralism. These coincided with the longest spell of decolonisation recorded in history, in turn fuelled by a spate of bourgeois democratic and Marxist Left alliances in almost every corner of the developing world [in the middle decaades of the twentieth century]. Though such alliances did not bring about emancipation for the masses, the experience of the 1960s suggested that radical transformations, for the Global South and the world in general, were in the offing.


Mrs Bandaranaike

NM Perera

Was the Third World wrong in pinning hopes for a fairer world order on the election of bourgeois democratic elites and the realisation of multilateral initiatives? In Sri Lanka two periods of socialist rule, which oversaw vast strides in North-South Dialogue and South-South cooperation, and enacted ambitious land and labour reforms at home, gave way to an endless succession of authoritarian neoliberal administrations, alternating between centre-right reformism and centre-right and rightwing populism.

Anil Moonesinghe

   Pieter Keuneman


The argument of Marxist commentators is that this situation would not have arisen if bourgeois national elites did not alienate the Marxist Left, even as they forged alliances with it. That is what happened in Sri Lanka in the 1970s, and it is what happened in Egypt as well: despite its immensely progressive potential, Nasserism ended up liquidating the Communist Party, leading up to the defeat of the Arab-Israeli war and the shameless capitulations to the neoliberal right under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

The Sri Lankan experience here is both general and unique. Though the contradictions between the Left and the bourgeois democratic centre-left reflected similar contradictions elsewhere in the Third World, particularly in Asia, they were rooted in the dynamics of Sri Lankan society, in particular rural society. Even today, the staunchest critics of the LSSP’s and the Communist Party’s decision to form governments with the SLFP contend that such agreements detracted from the imperatives of socialist revolution, and that the Marxist Left could enter into them only at the cost of its very existence.

Fair as this critique is, it ignores three important considerations. Firstly, the Marxist Left in Sri Lanka lacked an agrarian base. As Anil Moonesinghe observed in an interview with Michael Roberts,** the LSSP from its inception found itself unable to mobilise rural workers, partly owing to the cultural conditioning of its leadership. The situation was such that by 1956 the Left had the backing of urban workers, while the SLFP had the backing of rural workers. That could only lead to a reconciliation or a rapprochement between these two formations. Necessity proved to be the better part of valour here.

Secondly, the LSSP and Communist Party had to reckon with a more powerful and popular movement in the form of the JVP. The JVP took advantage of an entrenched but frustrated rural petty bourgeoisie. Gamini Keerawalla’s view that its rise coincided with the growth of an intermediate bourgeoisie in the villages is correct: it indicates that the Sri Lankan Left could be threatened by an ultra-Left element, and that, if pushed too far, the latter could evolve into an ultra-Right formation. That is what precisely what happened during the last few years of the J. R. Jayewardene regime, though by then the Old Left had been submerged and repressed so much that it could only watch from the sidelines.

Thirdly, the view that the SLFP was bourgeois democratic and thus incapable of carrying out any revolution, let alone a socialist one, ignored the fact that it was composed of different interest groups and these converged with and diverged from each other on various issues and fronts. More relevantly, unlike Egypt and Indonesia, Sri Lanka remained a parliamentary democracy. That may not have meant much in the larger scheme of things, but it did prove relevant for any party envisaging a radical transformation of society.

It was Sri Lanka’s system of parliamentary democracy and its emphasis on contact between the government and the people, combined with the socialist credentials of the parties in power, which enabled the United Front administration to implement far-reaching reforms like the Workers’ Councils. Yet that did not prevent breakaway factions within the Left, such as the LSSP (R), to denigrate the SLFP as a bourgeois formation. The JVP went one step ahead here, calling the SLFP as no different to the capitalist UNP.

The LSSP’s rejoinder to these claims was that the SLFP was not a bourgeois party, but a petty bourgeois party situated in a semi-colonial society, with much potential for change. As Anil Moonesinghe put it, the SLFP contained a reactionary and revolutionary wing: the former included the C. P. de Silva faction and, later, the Felix Dias faction. It was only by coming to terms with these specificities that any viable radical programme could be enacted and seen to its end – and not just in Sri Lanka.

The SLFP was the logical heir and successor to the Sinhala Maha Sabha, which S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike chose to make a part of the UNP. Gunadasa Amarasekara is correct when he criticises the view of the Sabha as a chauvinistic outfit as unjust and unfair. Both the Sabha and the SLFP gave vent to the cultural aspirations of a community that had been tied to 400 years of colonial rule. Insofar as it spoke to this group, the SLFP possessed an emancipatory potential, which could well have made it a fellow traveller of the Old Left.

To be sure, subsequent events proved that this was not to be. Yes, the SLFP did possess a progressive potential, but then this was not the same as being a progressive party. At its inception it was composed of a myriad of interests, some progressive, others not so, and others conservative and no different to the comprador elites in the UNP they considered to be their foes. Not surprisingly, the party’s victory in 1956 did not usher in a triumph for all these class elements; only a certain bloc therein. Paraphrasing Trotsky, the petty bourgeois shadow gained in size and strength, to the exclusion of more radical elements.

And yet, to wholeheartedly condemn the Left for forging an alliance with the SLFP would be to ignore the three points I have underlined above. More pertinently, it would be to ignore the strides made by the SLFP-LSSP-CP combination in the international sphere, including its contribution to the Non-Aligned Movement, its declaration of an Indian Ocean Peace Zone, and its interventions in UNCTAD and the New International Economic Order.

The breakaway Left, including the LSSP (R), as well as the JVP, had their own views regarding Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. The SLFP, the LSSP, and the CP in unison, by contrast, conceived a more internationalist foreign policy, shaped less by adherence to theory than by the need to establish links with the world. One may contend that the United Front government’s policies privileged expedience over principle here, but as the 1971 uprising showed, these enabled it to garner support almost everywhere, from Moscow to Washington.

The Left’s encounters with the SLFP failed to bring about a socialist revolution in Sri Lanka. There it differed very little from what was happening elsewhere: across much of the Third World the Marxist Left’s alliances with the bourgeois centre-left provoked a middle class backlash against socialism, enabling the neoliberal right to come to power.

This was propelled by developments taking place on the world stage, including the food crisis, the oil shock, and the abandonment of the Gold Standard. The latter, in particular, encouraged Western governments and policymakers to let go of Keynesian prescriptions, leading to a wholesale embracement of neoliberal monetarism which has shaped economic growth paradigms ever since. These developments conspired to wipe out the Marxist Left from parliament, though as Vinod Moonesinghe has correctly pointed out, the groups that broke ground with the LSSP and the Communist Party over their alliances with the SLFP got annihilated long before the fallout of the 1977 election.

Viewed that way, the Marxist view of bourgeois democratic parties as reactionary may be justified. Yet it misses well more than a few points. No socialist or radical programme can, or will, be effective unless it takes into account the concrete, dynamic specificities of society, including its social and political structures. This was the Old Left’s primary achievement, and conversely, the breakaway Left’s and the New Left’s primary failure.


The LSSP and the Communist Party cannot be absolved for the stances they took, or rather were compelled to take, over the language issue and the National Question later on. But one should not forget that these parties framed such issues from a progressive standpoint, and that when in power, they saw through a series of radical reforms which were accepted wholeheartedly by the masses of the time, though rejected by a growing middle-class. That these reforms did not reach fruition, and that they were abandoned by successive regimes, should not serve as an indictment on those who authored them.

The writer can be reached at

** “I listened to the interview here:

ADDENDUM = Political cartoons that shook the nation in the 1950s ……

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