The Curious Case of Leon Trotsky’s Heirs in Sri Lanka

Jeff Shaw QC

‘Poor old Trotsky, his unhappy ghost seems to have found its only refuge in this country’

On 16 August 1994, a democratic election in the island of Sri Lanka overthrew the conservative United National Party (UNP) government of 17 years’ standing, and installed a government consisting predominantly of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), led by Mrs Chandrika Kumaratunga, a member of the Bandaranaike political dynasty. The new Prime Minister’s father (S W R D Bandaranaike) was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959 at the family’s Colombo home1 and her mother was the world’s first woman Prime Minister, who took office in 1960 and who also held office between 1970 and 1977.2

In alliance with the SLFP were other leftist parties, in particular, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and the Lanka Sarna Samaja Party (LSSP), a now minor force in Sri Lankan politics but one still nominally adhering to the doctrines ofthe heretical communist Leon Trotsky.

One long-time leader of the LSSP, Bernard Soysa, who has recently celebrated his 80th birthday, has become a member of cabinet in the new government, as Minister of Scientific Affairs, Technology and Human Resources Development.3The party has five members of Parliament and, in addition to Soysa, one Deputy Minister.4

When I visited Sri Lanka in 1993, I contacted the LSSP and had an interview with Soysa. He was both the Secretary of the Party, and UII elected representative and (I think) Minister in a provincial governmcnt. but was not a member of the national Parliament. In his then position, Soysa was entitled to a car, driver and a modest office in Colombo. I WIIS escorted to his office in that car, offered tea, and given a courteous discussion lasting about one hour. I knew that thc LSSP had been condemned by Fourth International leaders of all tendencies as revisionist and renegade, for the party’s various parliamentary alliances and coaltion governments with social democratic parties.5So I asked Soysa whether he and the LSSP still considered themselves Trotskyists. ‘Yes’, he said. We still believe in the theory of permanent revolution.’ He accepted that some of the coalitions with the Bandaranaike regimes were badly timed tainting the workers’ party with recession and bitter ethnic conflict – but argued that these were correct in principle as helping to advance the cause of socialism in Sri Lanka.

The involvement of the LSSP in the alliance which has now assumed power in Sri Lanka reminds us of the enigma of left wing politics on this troubled and interesting island. In terms of international left and labour movements in the 1930s, Sri Lanka was wholly exceptional. First, within the mass working class party of Sri Lanka, as distinct from every other such comparable party in the world, it was the followers of Leon Trotsky (not the Stalinists) who had clear majority support. It was the Trotskyists who expelled the Stalinists – whereas elsewhere the Trotskyist dissidents were expelled as tiny splinter groups, spumed from the orthodoxy of the mass party, condemned as traitors and imperialists and consigned to sectarian, divisive, often bizarre political activity on the fringes of society. In every other country of the world, the Communist Party, aligned with the USSR, gained enormous prestige from the fact that the Soviet Union was an ally against fascism in the Second World War, and party membership and influence built up accordingly. But, in Sri Lanka, it was the Trotskyists, whilst opposing the allied cause in World War II, who held sway. It was the Trotskyist LSSP which had the support of the working class – the only Trotskyist party, the only affiliate of the Fourth International, with a base in the working class, capable of electing representatives to Parliament and capable of demonstrating community support. Alone amongst the affiliates of the Fourth International, the LSSP was not confined to a group of dissident intellectuals, fringe militants, meeting in small rooms and debating arcane aspects of revolutionary theory. (In saying this, I do not ignore the mass following which Nick Origlass and Laurie Short had on the Balmain waterfront in the I 940s in Australia, but make the obvious point that that was far from a widespread electoral base, and was support confined to the struggle within a particular union against its Stalinist leadership, geographically confined to one particular, and in many ways, unique working environment)6 Strangely, there is no evidence of communication between the prolific correspondent Trotsky (in exile in Europe, and later, in Mexico) and the leaders of his largest supportive party. Perhaps he did not know of their existence.

The reasons for this Sri Lankan exceptionalism have never been satisfactorily explained, despite the attention which has been paid to the formation, policies and practice of the LSSP.

The LSSP was formed on 18 December 1935.7The name of the party literally meant the ‘equal society’ Party.8Originally, the LSSP was not a specifically Trotskyist, nor even a Marxist party. It certainly had a strong socialist influence, and was clearly nationalist and pro-independence, but by late 1939 a schism had emerged with Stalinist Third International, objections emerged about the Moscow show trials and also, by 1940, objection was expressed within the LSSP to the Hitler/Stalin nonaggression pact. By 1940, the LSSP was the only effective Trotskyist party in the world.9

Perhaps in the context of 1935 it is not surprising that a mass-based political party in a poor colonial country would, in due course, tend towards Marxist ideas. But it is extraordinary that the party embraced Trotskyism. This adherence to the dissident international current was taken to the extent that, in December 1939, the LSSP Executive Committee carried by an overwhelming majority a resolution that ‘since the Third International has not acted in the interests of the international revolutionary working class movement, by expressing its solidarity with the Soviet Union, the first workers’ State, the LSSP declares that it has no faith in the Third International’.10 Subsequently, early in 1940, the proStalinist minority, which had opposed this resolution, were expelled from the party and, in the same year, established the United Socialist Party which became, in 1943, the Communist Party. 11

It appears that, even before the LSSP became overtly Trotskyist in 1940, a secret inner group (known as the T group) had become convinced followers of Leon Trotsky and met together to plan tactics within the party. The members of this group included Dr Colvin R de Silva, Lesley Ooonewardene, the Gunawardena brothers, Phillip and Robert, and Dr N M Pcrera.12 This group constituted a capable energetic leadership which, according to British constitutionalist Ivor Jennings, had the ability to form a government at least as efficient as that formed by the UNP.13

It is widely agreed that it was an educated elite which steered the LSSP towards Trotskyism, and that much of the rank and file had little knowledge of the debates within international communism. It also seems clear that this group of committed Trotskyists consisted of young men who returned from study in Great Britain and the United States in the late 1920s and early 1930s – radicals from the Singhalese upper classes who had learnt their socialism in the classrooms of the London School of Economics and at the University of Wisconsin.14

But what influences drove these young intellectuals to Trotsky as opposed to Stalin? One of particular significance seems to have been D P R (known as Phillip) Gunawardena. He learnt Marxism at the University of Wisconsin, and on his way back to Ceylon was in contact with Trotskyist groups in France and Spain.15

At Wisconsin, Gunawardena was influenced by sociologist Scott Nearing.16 Nearing seems to have been as much a follower of Tolstoy as of Trotsky.17 He agonised over the question of joining the Communist Party in the 1920s and, although he ultimately did join, his membership ended in expulsion in 1930.18 Nearing knew of Trotsky’s doctrines, but was not a proclaimed Trotskyist. By the I 960s, Nearing appeared to be an orthodox pro-Soviet communist.19In the 1950s, his travels brought him into contact with a socialist in Ceylon who was carrying the burden of administering a government department. But there is no indication in this enigmatic account that the (unnamed) person was a former student.20

Ironically, although Gunawardena seems to have been a seminal force in the 1930s, he defected from the LSSP in the 1950s to become an ally of Bandaranaike and a Minister in his government.21 De Silva was another significant influence. He was a practicing lawyer, with a distinguished academic background at King’s College, University of London and the Inns of Court. Curiously, Dr De Silva was both a Marxist and ‘profoundly committed to egalitarian values which epitomised the spirit of the common law of England’22 Together with N M Perera, he had come into contact with Trotskyite circles while studying in London in the late 1920s and early 1930s.23

Perera himself was probably of more significance. He was influenced by Harold Laski at the London School of Economics towards egalitarianism. Laski was a guru to Perera.24The curious contradictions in Laski’s political positions are well known, involving a tension between liberalism and socialism.25 Laski had an ambivalent relationship with Marxism, and because of his democratic and constitutional instincts was not regarded as a Stalinist. But nor was he a Trotskyist. However, it is true that, though a poor singer, Laski was known to sing a parody of a popular song ofthe 1920s:
You’re the only Commissar that I adore. . .26

It seems that Laski’s emphasis on democratic constitutionalism was a factor prompting Perera against orthodox communism. Perera’s charm and urbanity, together with his academic distinction, was of undoubted influence on the course of events in leftist politics in Ceylon.27

So, in these complex personal interactions between western education and the young intellectuals of Ceylon arose a political commitment which, even in 1994, retains some relevance. If the hegemonic communism of Joseph Stalin is all but dead, there is at least the tiny spark of life left in his assassinated rival in the politics of this island within the current government. The assassin’s icepick of 1940 was not entirely effective.

*Jeff Shaw is a lawyer and Labor Member of the New South Wales Parliament.

  1. A C Alles, The Assassination of a Prime Minister, New York, 1986.
  2. Political Handbook of the World: 1992, New York, ]992, pp.717-18.
  3. Workers News (Australian Trotskyist newspaper), issue 1474,26 August 1994.
  4. Regrettably, there is some evidence that the LSSP is likely to merge with the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL). What would Trotsky think of such a liquidationist approach!
  5. See, for example, David North, The Heritage We Defend, Detroit, 1988, pp.396-404.
  6. This story is vividly told in Susanna Short, Laurie Short: A Political Life, Sydney, 1992,reviewed by Jeff Shaw in The Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol 35, No 2, 1993, p.361.
  7. G J Lerski, Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon, Stanford, 1968, p. 1.
  8. Professor Carlo Fonseka, ‘Philosophy and Science of N M Perera’s Politics’, 7th N M Perera Memorial Lecture,18 August 1992, p.3.
  9. Lerski,op. cit., p2.
  10. R. J Alexander, International Trotskyism, Durham, 1991, p.166
  11. Ibid.
  12. Lerski, op. cit., p.155; W. Howard Wriggins, Ceylon: Dilemmas ofa New Nation, New Jersey, 1960, p.125.
  13. Calvin A Woodward, ‘The Trotskyite Movement in Ceylon’ World Politics (1962), XIV, pp. 307-21.
  14. Lerski, op. cit., p 10.
  15. Kumari Jayawardena, The Origins of the Left Movement in Sri Lanka, Sanjiva Books, p.17; Wriggins, op. cit., p.124.
  16. Lerski, op. cit., p.IO; Alexander, op. cit., p.161; Woodward, op. cit., p.310.
  17. Scott Nearing, The Making ofa Radical, New York, 1972, pp.26, 146, 150, & 151.
  18. Ibid., pp.264, 266.
  19. Scott Nearing, Socialism in Practice, New York, 1962; Scott Nearing, ‘World Events’
    Monthly Review Vol 20, No 4, 1968, p.44.
  20. Helen and Scott Nearing, Socialists Around the World, New York, 1958, pp.130-32.
  21. L Goonewardene, A Short History of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, Colombo, 1960, pp. 33, 53 & 62.
  22. Professor G L Peiris, ‘Some Themes in the Life and Work of Dr Colvin R de Silva’, De Silva Memorial Lecture, 1991, p.l3.
  23. Woodward, op. cit., p.310.
  24. Fonseka, op. cit., p 3.
  25. Kingsley Martin, Harold Laski, London 1953, p.22; Wriggins, op. cit., p.124.
  26. Ibid., pp.183,184.
  27. Woodward, op. cit., p.311.