Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

Edmund Samarakkody, 1912-1992

Meryl Fernando

"Mankind, when after some progress it succumbs to a stampede, allows those who urge it forward to be abused, vilified, and trampled to death. Only when it has resumed the forward movement, does it pay rueful tribute to the victims, cherish their memory and piously collect their relics; then it is grateful to them for every drop of blood they gave, for it knows that with their blood they nourished the seed of the future."
Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast

EDMUND SAMARAKKODY was born on 19 April 1912. He belonged to family of the low country landed gentry, and was educated at St Thomas College, Mount Lavinia, which was close to the hearts of British Governors of Ceylon and the bishops of the Anglican faith. It is very rarely that from such a background would emerge a young man who would want to overhaul the existing social order and build on its ashes a new order. Edmund Samarakkody proved to be the exception. He broke away from the moorings in home and school, and abandoned his social class to commit himself entirely to the workers’ movement.

The winds of change originating from the October 1917 revolution in Russia had wafted across the Indian subcontinent, but had not touched the shores of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known, in the Indian ocean, which British imperialism had transformed into a British sea. Thus the Communist Party of India was formed in 1920, which became a constituent of the Communist (Third) International, but there was no counterpart of it in Ceylon. So when Philip Gunawardena, Colvin R. de Silva, N.M. Perera and Leslie Goonewardene, arrived in Ceylon in 1932-33, having been influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx and Lenin while they were in Britain, there was a virgin field in which they could introduce the concept of socialism and develop it in various ways.

When poppies were sold on Armistice Day (11 November) to commemorate soldiers who were killed in the first imperialist war of 1914-18, the Suriya Mal movement was founded in 1933 to sell Suriya flowers on the same day, in competition with the poppy sellers, on an anti-imperialist and anti-war basis.

When the malaria epidemic, in which over 100,000 deaths occurred between September 1934 and December 1935, struck the Kegalle district, Suriya Mal workers played an important role and did valuable relief work in the malaria-stricken villages.

In February 1933, when the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills workers struck work against a proposal by the management to reduce wages as a result of the economic depression and the increased competition of Japanese textiles on the market, and the workers appealed to A.E. Goonesinha to intervene on their behalf, he advised them to return to work. The workers refused to heed his advice. They then turned to Colvin R. de Silva, who had recently returned from England. This gave Colvin, Philip Gunawardena, N.M. Perera and members of the Colombo South Youth League an opportunity to support the workers’ strike and provide leadership. This was the beginning of the challenge to the trade union leadership of A.E. Goonesinha, who in the 1920s had fought militant battles on behalf of the workers in the Colombo port, the railways and the tramway strike and riot in 1929, which had marked, according to Philip Gunawardena, the culmination of a period of offensive action by the workers.

At a time when the Board of Ministers of the State Council who belonged to the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) were asking Whitehall to transfer more power to the elected Ministers and submitted a petition to Whitehall the Youth Leagues opposed the manoeuvre as an abject capitulation to imperialism. The ministers did not demand even Dominion status. This showed that the CNC as the representative of the Ceylonese bourgeoisie was very weak and that the bourgeoisie as a class was very weak and completely incapable of fighting for independence. Edmund Samarakkody was then a member of the Colombo South Youth League.

Edmund enters the political arena of struggle
It was in this milieu that Edmund Samarakkody threw in his lot to help found the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in December 1935 as a broad Left party with complete independence for Ceylon from British rule and socialism as its aims

When Philip Gunawardena contested the Avissawella seat in the State Council election of 1936, Edmund presided at one of his election meetings; a few hundred yards away, his father presided at an election meeting in support of the rival candidate, a blue-blooded aristocrat. As a result he was disinherited by his father.

In 1937 Edmund was already helping to lead strikes at the Vavasseur Coconut Mill and the Colombo Commercial Company Fertiliser Works at Hunupitiya just north of Colombo. For his role at the latter strike Edmund was arrested along with Leslie Goonewardene.

After passing out of the Law College as a Proctor (Attorney-At-Law), Edmund married Dagmar Samarakkody and the young couple settled down in Badulla, the capital of the Uva Province, on the eastern slope of the South Central mountain mass, where tea grows luxuriantly. Edmund practised as lawyer and engaged in political work. When the strike wave of 1939-40 spread to the Uva Province the Samasamajists were in the leadership. Edmund Samarakkody along with Willie Jayatilleke and V. Sittampalam did invaluable work in the struggle in Uva (Leslie Goonewardene, Short History of the LSSP, p.13).

The second imperialist war started in September 1939 and the LSSP opposed it. After the strike wave of 1939-40, in which the LSSP provided militant leadership in Uva, the colonial government in April 1940 arrested four leaders – Philip Gunawardena, Colvin R. de Silva, N.M. Perera and Edmund Samarakkody. Japan entered the war towards the end of 1941 and bombed Colombo in early April 1942. After making a quick decision, the four detenus escaped from jail along with jail guard Solomon on 21 April 1942. Since there were jail guards sympathetic to the detenus it was a simple business to open the doors of the prison and come out. In fact, on two previous occasions also they had left the jail in the night for consultations with the party and had returned to jail before dawn (Short History of the LSSP, p.19)

Expulsion of the Stalinists – Towards Trotskyism
Edmund was a member of the "T" group, which was a secret Trotskyist group within the party. In 1939 the Stalinists in the LSSP, S.A. Wickremasinghe, M.G. Mendis, A. Vaidialingam et al, were expelled from the LSSP and the party took a turn towards building a Trotskyist party. Incidentally this was the first occasion where the Trotskyists expelled the Stalinists – elsewhere, in parties of the Communist (Third) International, the reverse took place.

In April 1942, the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India (BLPI) was formed as a section of the Fourth International with the LSSP as its Ceylon unit. However, the party was soon in the throes of a factional struggle and Edmund sided with the Bolshevik-Leninist faction as opposed to a grouping around Philip and N.M. Perera which called itself the Workers’ Opposition.

After the war ended in August 1945, Philip and N.M. broke away from the BLPI and its Ceylon unit, the LSSP, and formed a new party which they too called the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, claiming that it was the real LSSP and it was Fourth Internationalist. Fight, the English organ of the LSSP, Ceylon unit of the BLPI, in its first issue of 13 November 1945 editorially attacked the grouping around Philip and N.M. as a petty bourgeois grouping calling themselves Samasamajists who had separated themselves from proletarian politics and made strides towards petty bourgeois opportunism. Colvin and Leslie remained in India and Edmund was the best known public figure in the LSSP, the Ceylon unit of the BLPI. A public meeting of this organisation which was held at the Colombo Town Hall (then housed in the Municipal Council Building) on 25 October 1945 was presided over by Edmund. An attempt to break up the meeting by an LSSP group with the use of pure thuggery was foiled.

Edmund contests D.S. Senanayake
During a short-lived merger of the two parties in 1946, an agreed list of candidates was drawn up for the parliamentary elections due to take place under a new constitution, imposed by Britain, to take effect in 1947. After the two parties split again, this list was honoured at the election held in September 1947. Edmund was pitted against D. S. Senanayake – the leader of the Ceylonese bourgeoisie and future Prime Minister – for the Mirigama seat, a coconut and rice growing area. The down-trodden people and particularly those belonging to the so-called "depressed castes" who had never had the experience of voting (D.S. Senanayake was elected uncontested in two previous State Council elections under universal franchise) rallied round Edmund in their thousands. It was a new experience, an awakening and a bout of newly found freedom to express their disgust at the landed gentry and their exploiters. Edmund’s and the party’s resources were limited. Edmund had an old motor car and he suffered from financial constraints. However, he polled over 10,000 votes. It is said that at the counting of votes D.S. Senanayake was utterly surprised

In 1948 the BLPI entered the Congress Socialist Party of India and the Ceylon unit became the section of the Fourth International. It took the name Bolshevik Samasamaja Party (BSP). In the rivalry between the BSP and the LSSP, the BSP was in the ascendant, and the LSSP’s fortunes were declining. It was in this situation that Edmund as the BSP candidate defeated Robert Gunawardena of the LSSP in a triangular contest for a vacant seat in a by-election of the Dehiwela-Mount Lavinia Urban Council. Later he became the Chairman of this Council.

In the parliamentary elections of 1952, following the death of D.S. Senanayake in March of that year, and after Ceylon enjoyed a boom in the rubber industry due to the Korean war, Edmund was elected to represent Dehiowita in Parliament, in an unfavourable situation for the Left. The United National Party (UNP) commanded 74 seats out of 101 in that Parliament. The LSSP was down to nine! Edmund was re-elected in 1956 for Dehiowita and in July 1960 for Bulathsinghala.

Opposition to coalition government with SLFP
In May 1960 the LSSP at a special conference adopted a proposal by N.M. Perera to form a coalition government with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). In the central committee a group emerged that was totally opposed to this proposal. Edmund became the leader of this group. At the conference Colvin, Leslie, Doric de Souza and Bernard Soysa opposed the proposal, but they began to waver, and finally capitulated. In 1964 they accepted N.M.’s position. Eighteen years later, Leslie Goonewardene, in a pamphlet titled The History of the LSSP in Perspective issued on the 43rd anniversary, justified the formation of a coalition government with the SLFP (p.9). Analysing the class character of the SLFP, he calls it a petty bourgeois party with an upper petty bourgeois leadership. In the period 1956-9 the LSSP in political resolutions adopted at conference characterised the SLFP as a capitalist party and referred to the UNP and SLFP as two sides of the same coin!

The masses became disillusioned with the SLFP government in 1962. In August 1963 the United Left Front (ULF) comprising the LSSP, the Communist Party and Philip Gunawardena’s MEP was formed, ostensibly to oppose the UNP and SLFP. The minority in the LSSP central committee opposed the ULF on the ground that its programme was a parliamentary reformist programme and was not anti-capitalist. Further, that the LSSP had abandoned its policy on the state language question. In the above-mentioned pamphlet Leslie Goonewardene states: "The immediate occasion for the change of the LSSP’s position from both Sinhala and Tamil as state languages to that of Sinhala as the sole official language with the reasonable use of Tamil, a position that had already been put into law, had been the pact with the VLSSP of Philip Gunawardena which led to the United Left Front composed of these parties along with the Communist Party" (p.14).

Disillusionment and discontent of the masses with the policies and performance of the SLFP government increased and assumed crisis proportions. The Prime Minister, Sirima Bandaranaike, prorogued parliament for four months and sought the help of the LSSP leader N.M. Perera to form a coalition. A special conference in June 1964 gave N.M. a mandate to form a coalition. The minority in the central committee opposed it vehemently and walked out of the conference with about 100 members to break away from the LSSP and form the LSSP (Revolutionary) with Edmund as the Secretary. The two LSSP(R) MPs, Edmund and Meryl Fernando, opposed the coalition government in Parliament. On 3 December 1964 the two MPs voted for an amendment to the second throne speech of the coalition government, moved by the independent rightist MP Dahanayaka, who was supported by the UNP and 13 MPs of the SLFP who crossed over to the opposition. The amendment was carried and the government was defeated.

The 3 December vote of the two LSSP(R) MPs was criticised within the party. The burden of the criticism was that they should not have voted for the right-wing MP’s amendment. However, the party approved the vote as politically correct. Nevertheless it ushered in a period of deep crisis, and some weeks later V. Karalasingham and the Sakthi group left the party to rejoin the LSSP.

(Several years later the 3 December vote was reviewed by the RSP central committee which decided that it was a tactical mistake, although politically correct.)

LSSP(R) not a viable group
The group that broke away from the LSSP at the 1964 June special conference to form the LSSP(R) was not homogeneous and comprised several tendencies. Other splits followed. But Edmund continued to function as secretary of a group now known as the Revolutionary Samasamaja Party (RSP). When the April 1971 Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection took place, the RSP while criticising the adventurism of the JVP leadership condemned the massacre of the insurgents by the government troops. The RSP in a communication addressed to the Prime Minister, Mrs Bandaranaike, registered its vehement protest against the massacre. Undaunted by the smallness of the political group of which he was secretary, Edmund continued to write on important matters like the Tamil National Question, the United Socialist Alliance, Gorbachev’s reforms ...

Apart from his unflinching loyalty to the revolutionary Marxist programme, and steadfast opposition to coalition politics, two things stand out in the last three decades of Edmund’s political life.

Firstly, his internationalism. He was happy to take upon himself the task of attending world congresses. In June 1963 the LSSP selected him to attend the seventh world congress of the Fourth International in Rome, which ratified the re-unification with the Socialist Workers Party of the United States, thus giving birth to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec). At this point in time the leadership of the LSSP did not have much interest in the Fourth International and was more concerned with finding a way to form an anti-UNP government in parliament. Subsequently Edmund attended the eighth world congress of the USec in Germany in December 1965 and the ninth world congress held in Italy in April 1969. His link with the USec snapped in 1969. In 1973 the RSP came to be known as the Revolutionary Workers Party (RWP), which in the mid-1970s established fraternal relations with the international Spartacist tendency (iSt) of the United States. Edmund carried on a debate with James Robertson of the iSt on the National Question, support for left parties within a bourgeois coalition, by the exchange of documents. He also wrote a document on "The Struggle for Trotskyism in Ceylon" which the iSt published. The liaison ended in 1979.

The Gruppo Operaio Rivoluzionario, a breakaway group from the iSt, established contact with the RWP in the early 1980s, and after discussions the two organisations decided to work together with the aim of building an International Trotskyist Tendency. In the 1980s, despite advancing in age, Edmund had the will to attend several conferences of a few small groups in Europe. In 1985 he was the main speaker at a meeting for the defence of the rights of the Tamil people which had been organised in Holland. In 1989 he attended a conference of the Trotskyist Co-ordination Committee held in San Francisco.

Edmund accepted not merely in words but in deeds that working men and women in all countries should unite under a revolutionary Communist banner to fight against imperialist barbarity, against the privileged classes, against the bourgeois state and bourgeois property, against all kinds and forms of social and national oppression. He persisted in working with small groups to build the nucleus of a new International. He could not have succeeded.

Secondly, his views on the National Question. He showed great interest in it and would often refer to Trotsky’s famous dictum that it is the problem of problems. In a document titled "The Tamil Minority Question and the RWP", he stated:

"The oppression of the Tamil Minority by the Sinhalese bourgeoisie and their governments, is only an aspect of bourgeois class oppression of the workers and toilers of Sri Lanka. The Majority ruling bourgeois group, the Sinhalese, has the need to keep the Tamil Minority deprived of their just rights, and in a state of subordination, even as this bourgeoisie needs to keep the working class and toilers in a state of oppression for capitalist exploitation and the maintenance of capitalist class-rule.

"It is thus, that in the capitalist society of Sri Lanka, the Tamil minority, the working class, students and youth, poor peasants are in a state of oppression. The oppression of all these sections of the people is inextricably linked to the continuation of the capitalist system and the maintenance of capitalist class-rule.

"It is thus, that the struggle of the Tamil minority for its just rights is linked to the struggle of the workers and toilers of the whole of Sri Lanka against capitalism and class rule. This struggle must necessarily be based on an anti-capitalist program which will include the just demands of the Tamil minority, above all the right of the Tamils for self-determination – the recognition of the right to a separate Tamil state."

Edmund distinguished himself from the first generation leaders of the LSSP by stubbornly refusing to take the coalition road to parliamentary office. After dissociating himself from coalition politics in 1964 he attempted to help build, albeit unsuccessfully, a combat revolutionary party of the working class and a revolutionary working men’s International. His life and work have demonstrated that unflinching revolutionary principle and transparent integrity are not enough to achieve these aims.

Edmund’s wife, Dagmar, passed away a few years after Edmund’s death. In his last years of political isolation she stood bravely by his side. They are survived by their daughter, Chulanganee, and several grandchildren.