The Lanka Sama Samaja Party is the oldest political party in Sri Lanka, having been formed in December, 1935. It has experienced victories as well as defeats. It has had a powerful effect on the moulding of public opinion on many questions. And it has made a significant impact on the political history of this country over the past forty odd years. Nevertheless there are people who often out of ignorance ask the question. What has the LSSP done during all these years? There are yet others who, out of impatience or mischief, ask why the LSSP has not been able to come into power despite its efforts over such a long period.
What follows is written not with the purpose of listing the achievements of the LSSP or of merely answering these questions. What follows is written with the aim of placing the formation of the LSSP and its journey through different stages in its true historical setting, thus enabling the reader both to supply the answers himself, not only to the above-mentioned questions, but to many other questions as well. The writer, as an active participant in the events that constitute the history of the LSSP, cannot be expected to be free of subjectivism. But he has tried to be as objective as possible. The reader is likely to agree that this effort has not been without success.
It is easier to have an understanding of the history of the LSSP if one divides this history into four broadly definable historical periods. The first period dates from the inception of the party up to the elections of August-September 1947. The second period extends from 1948 to 1956. The third period, commencing with the results of the elections in April 1956, can be considered to extend up to the victory of the United National Party (UNP) in July 1977. After the formation of the UNP Government, we have entered the fourth period, in which we are now.
The most important thing to realise about the first period, in which the LSSP was born, is that this was a period in which Ceylon was a colony directly ruled by British Imperialism. And the only party that stood for complete national independence was the LSSP. In fact, even before the formation of the party, the Youth Leagues which, along with the Suriya Mal Movement, were the precursors of the party, had vigorously opposed the petition addressed to Whitehall of the Ceylonese Ministers in the Government. This petition was known as the "Ministersí Memorandum", and did not demand even Dominion Status but only asked for the transfer of more powers to the elected Ministers. The Youth Leaguers condemned the Ministersí Memorandum as a gross betrayal and counterposed the demand for complete national independence.
It may be useful at this point to contrast the role played by the Ceylon National Congress, the party of the Ceylonese bourgeoisie at the time, with that of the Indian National Congress, the party of the bourgeoisie in neighbouring India. While the Indian National Congress opposed the British colonial rule in India, the Ceylon National Congress co-operated with their British rulers. Even though the Indian National Congress, tied as it was to the policy of non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi, placed limitations on the struggle against the British Raj, nevertheless it conducted mass movements of civil disobedience against the British rulers. The Ceylon National Congress, on the other hand, opposed those who stood for independence and, as we shall see later, joined with the British rulers in repressing them.
The Marxist method of analysis enables us to see the reason for this difference. The difference flows from the difference in the economic and social positions occupied by the two classes in question, namely the Indian bourgeoisie and the Ceylonese bourgeoisie. While the Indian bourgeoisie had already been developing as an industrial bourgeoisie whose interests were in competition and conflict with those of the British industrial bourgeoisie (the textile industry is an outstanding example), the bourgeoisie in Ceylon had developed either as a compradore trading class selling British goods in the Ceylon market or as junior partners of the British capitalists in the plantations. Instead of conflict of interests, there existed rather and identity of interests.
A second point of importance that should be noted regarding this early period is that it was the LSSP that first took politics to the masses in the country. (True, Mr A.E. Goonesinghe, the leader of the Ceylon Labour Party, had done this, earlier in the twenties. But his activities had not only been confined to the workers principally in Colombo, but except in the matter of his demand for universal franchise in his evidence before the Donoughmore Commission and, later his propaganda against Indians in Ceylon, his politics had been of a trade union variety.) It is the LSSP that first brought issues of national political importance to the masses, and unlike the bourgeois leaders, spoke to them in a language they could understand.
Agitation on many partial demands met with success. Free meals for school children were won. And even though not implemented, the State Council passed a resolution in favour of the use of Sinhala and Tamil for proceedings in the lower courts and for entries in police stations. Irrigation rates were abolished, and a start was made in the abolition of the headman system with the abolition of the posts of Mudaliyars, Ratemahatmayas, Vidane Arachchis and Korale Mahatmayas. The eight hour day and the nationalisation of the imports of rice and petrol of course came later. It may not be out of place to mention that when Mr C.W.W. Kannangara introduced his progressive measure of free education, Dr N.M. Perera had already written his book from prison, advocating this system.
Thus when the war ended in 1945, the LSSP leaders released from jail, and the LSSP itself legalised, the LSSP found itself in a favourable position for obtaining mass support. Although, unlike in most other countries of South East Asia, there had been no mass struggle for independence during the war years, the LSSP emerged as the sole political party in Ceylon which had taken a militant stand for national independence during the war years, opposed the war as an imperialist war not fought in the interests of our country, and had suffered repression as a result of this stand. Not even the Communist Party, the other leftist party at the time, could lay claim to such a role.
The repression of the LSSP during the war years was supported by the bourgeois leaders of the Ceylon National Congress, the precursor of the United National Party. These leaders thus faithfully played their role as agents of imperialism. Despite his progressive role in subsequent years, Mr S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike himself continued to serve as Minister of Local Administration in a Government which manacled and chained to his bed at the General Hospital, Colombo, Robert Gunawardena whose leg had been broken by the Indian police while attempting to escape from custody during the August struggle for independence in India.
It should also be noted that the LSSP and the trade union organisations led by it were able to assume leadership of the post-war working class upsurge and provide leadership to the workers in two general strikes. As a result of this the party, which had earlier been a working class party in the sense of espousing a Marxist working class programme, was now able to develop into a working class party in an organisational sense as well.
The net result of all the above was that the LSSP which before the war had a very limited mass influence, and had become almost a hunted sect during the war, was now able to emerge at a party with a real influence among the masses in general and the urban working class in particular. In the elections to the First Parliament of 1947, the Samasamajists, divided at that time into the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (204,020 votes) and the Bolshevik-Leninist Party (113,193 votes) polled a total of 317,213 votes, or 17.2% of the total votes polled. The total Left votes, including the 70,331 votes of the Communist Party, amounted to 20.5% of the total poll.
This marked the highest point of the LSSP and the Left generally from an electoral point of view. From this point onwards we can see a decline from this point of view. It is true that in the March 1960 election the LSSP obtained 10.5%, the VLSSP1 (taking the name MEP) 10.5%, and the CP 4.8% of the total vote polled, making a total of 25.8%. However, it should be borne in mind that the MEP polled a considerable part of the vote mobilised on the Sinhala-Buddhist cry, and that only a minority of this vote could be considered to be a Left vote.
Chapter 2: The Right Strengthens Itself
After the elections of 1947 we enter a period in which the Right steadily improved its position. The most important reason for this was the granting of Dominion Status to Ceylon in February 1948.
At that time, the Left described this as a fake independence. This was not strictly correct. It is a fact that the substance of political power had been transferred from Britain to Ceylon. It is true that the political independence received was not complete. But this was due principally to the fact that the United National Party, the party of the Ceylonese bourgeoisie, into whose hands the power was transferred, did not strive to complete that independence. It was left to the MEP Government of which Mr S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was Prime Minister which took over the British bases in Ceylon, and the United Front Government of the SLFP, LSSP and CP led by Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike the Prime Minister, by introducing the New Constitution of May 1972 which severed its relations with the British Crown, to complete the political independence of Sri Lanka.
The story of how the British came to transfer political power to Ceylon, a country in which no mass struggle for independence had taken place in the crucial war years, is worth recording. It is the proud boast of the UNP that under the leadership of Mr D.S. Senanayake, they obtained independence for Ceylon without the shedding of a drop of blood. This is, of course, not true. While it is true that the masses of Ceylon did not shed their blood, it is an undeniable fact that rivers of blood flowed in the neighbouring countries of South East Asia in the struggle for freedom from imperialist rule. Without these struggles, Ceylon would not have obtained her freedom. Ceylon therefore owes an eternal debt of gratitude for her independence not to Mr D.S. Senanayake or the UNP, but to those heroic masses of our neighbouring countries.
However, if there was a single individual to whom grudgingly though it may be we may be thankful, because by his astute arguments, he succeeded in persuading the British Government to transfer political power to Ceylon, that individual was not Mr D.S. Senanayake, but Sir Oliver Goonetilleke. Civil Defence Commissioner during the war, and later Financial Secretary, this loyal servant and respected adviser of the British, put forward a very cogent reason for political freedom for Ceylon. He pointed out that if political freedom was withheld from Ceylon which had loyally supported British rule during the critical war years in particular, while it was granted to neighbouring countries like India and Burma which had fought for their freedom, the conclusion which would inevitably be drawn by the other colonies in the far flung British Empire, would be that the only way to obtain political freedom was through struggle.
What would be the disastrous effects of such an impression being created, particularly among the numerous British colonies in the continent of Africa? On the other hand, if political freedom was granted also to Ceylon, which had loyally co-operated with the British, the confidence would be created that loyal service to the British did not go without its reward. and the danger of a major upheaval in the British colonies could be stemmed. This was the argument that turned the scales in favour of Ceylon in Whitehall. Or, to put it in more picturesque language, it was this shameful utilisation of the struggles and sacrifices of the people of our neighbouring countries in this manner by one of the wiliest brains that Ceylon has produced, which led to the amendment of the Soulbury Constitution by an Order-in-Council dated February 4th 1948 granting Dominion Status to Ceylon.
In any case, the granting of Dominion Status to Ceylon brought about a qualitative change in the situation. In particular, the attraction of the LSSP as the party fighting for national independence ceased to have the same appeal to the people. They now directly faced not the foreign imperialists but their own bourgeois leaders who had willingly placed themselves in the service of imperialism. A turn of the masses to the Right commenced.
This rightward turn was further strengthened by the following factors. Firstly the UNP started to build itself as an organised political force among the masses. Up to 1947 the UNP, and the Ceylon National Congress before it, had not attempted to construct any organisation in the country, but at election times had obtained the votes of the people through the influence of the upper class strata and the bureaucracy in town and countryside. Now the UNP seriously set about the task of organising party branches throughout the country.
There were two other factors which helped the UNP to strengthen its hold. Firstly the super profits received from the sale of rubber during the Korean War boom as well as the sterling balances accumulated during the war years were used, not for development but exclusively for food subsidies. This strengthened its hold particularly among the masses in the rural areas.
Finally, the Indian and Pakistani Citizenship Act of 1948, which deprived the plantation workers of Indian origin of the right of the vote which they had hitherto enjoyed, weakened the electoral position of the LSSP to some extent in some areas like in Sabaragamuwa and Uva where there were plantation workers of Indian origin. In such areas, where the plantation workers of Indian origin constituted a minority and were unable to put forward their own candidates through the Ceylon Indian Congress, a majority of such workers had in the 1947 elections voted for the Left in general and the LSSP in particular.
Although the period from 1948 to the elections of 1956 was one in which there was a mass turn to the Right, it cannot be said that the Right did not have its setbacks.
The first setback came in 1951, when Mr S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, along with five others left the Government ranks in Parliament and crossed over to the opposition. He formed a new party of the Centre, called the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). This party drew support not only from the ranks of the UNP. Middle of the road elements who had hitherto supported the Left due to the absence of any other party opposed to the UNP now began to turn to the SLFP. This split in the ranks of the Right due to the defection of Mr Bandaranaike and his supporters did not however prove to be a serious one; and in the General Elections of May 1952, the UNP polled 1,026,005 votes, winning 54 seats out of a total of 95.
The LSSP polled 13.1% of the total vote polled, and along with the CP-VLSSP United Front, the Left polled 18.9%. The SLFP polled 15.5% of the total vote polled.
The second setback for the UNP came with the one-day hartal of August 12th, 1953. This was called as a protest against the imposition of burdens on the masses such as the increase in the price of sugar, the cut in the rice ration in 1952, and in 1953 the increase of rail fares and postal rates, the abolition of the free midday bun given to school children, and the increase in the price of a measure of rationed rice from 25 cents to 70 cents. All political parties in the Opposition agitated against these measures, but when it came to a question of action, only the LSSP, the CP-VLSSP United Front and the Federal Party called for a one-day hartal. By destroying the myth of the invincibility of the UNP Government, the hartal paved the way for the defeat of the UNP in the General Elections of 1956.
Despite the above-mentioned setbacks, however, the UNP continued to maintain its hold till the General Elections of 1956. For example, the UNP comfortably won the Aluthnuwara by-election of May 1955, the LSSP coming second, the SLFP third, and the CP fourth.
Chapter 3: The Rise of the Petty Bourgeois SLFP
The situation was however radically altered in the General Elections of 1956, when the UNP was routed, winning only eight seats. The road for this was prepared by a No-Contest Pact between the SUP and the LSSP in September 1955. The LSSP entered into this pact because it felt that the defeat of the UNP was needed in order to open up the path of development in a progressive direction in the politics of the country.
This was undoubtedly a correct estimate of the situation. But at the same time, viewing matters in retrospect, it is clear that the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), a Front led by the SLFP, with the VLSSP of Philip Gunawardena and the Basha Peramuna of W. Dahanayake as constituted parts, received its tremendous support, particularly in the countryside, because it assumed leadership of the cultural renaissance taking place among the Sinhalese. It was the slogan of making Sinhala the only official language (while permitting the reasonable use of the Tamil language), and the undertaking to give Buddhism its rightful place, that enabled the MEP Ė and principally the SLFPP Ė to break the hold of the UNP over the masses in the rural areas.2
All parties had, at least in the post-war period, claimed to stand for both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages. The strength of the demand among the Sinhalese to give Sinhala alone the status of being the official language, can be gauged from the fact that at the last moment the UNP changed its language policy to Sinhala only, going one better than the SLFP by giving no undertaking to make any provision whatsoever for the Tamil language. Of course, the voters, who knew that the real position of the UNP was to continue to maintain the position of the English language in state affairs, were not deceived.
The LSSP, however, stuck to its position of both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages. It should not be concluded, however, that everyone who voted for the LSSP endorsed this position. Many who stood for Sinhala Only voted for the LSSP, not only because of the No Contest Pact with the SLFP, but also because the defeat of the UNP was the prerequisite for all changes, including the adoption of a new language policy. (It is also true, of course, that there were people who stood for both Sinhala and Tamil who voted for MEP candidates, in order to defeat the UNP.)
In the 1956 elections, the MEP obtained 1,046,277 votes (39.5%), the LSSP 274,204 votes (10.4%), and the CP 119,715 votes (4.5%). The LSSP and CP vote combined amounted to 14.9% of the total poll.
As pointed out earlier, the LSSP suffered a setback in the years 1948 to 1956, due to various reasons. The LSSP lost in this period to the UNP, the party of the Ceylonese bourgeoisie. In the period following 1956 too the LSSP had to fight an uphill battle in the effort to retain its following. But this time it was an effort to retain its influence as against the petty bourgeois SLFP.
The class character of the SLFP has been a matter of some dispute in Left circles. While some have called it the party of the national bourgeoisie, the LSSP has been more inclined to regard it as a petty bourgeois party with an upper petty bourgeois leadership. The view of the writer is that class definitions should help us to grasp the concrete reality but that we should not become slaves to them. In any event, an act like the nationalisation in 1975 of all company owned plantations, for long regarded by the Left as constituting "the commanding heights of our economy", is extremely unlikely to have been done by a bourgeois party, even under mass pressure.
In the two decades that followed 1956, the SLFP was able to build itself as a party with a widespread mass base in the country. As stated earlier, the language question and Buddhism played the principal role in this process. The Buddhist bhikkus (excluding perhaps only a majority of the chief priests), Sinhala school teachers and ayurvedic physicians, as well as students, acted as the transmission belt to the masses.
However, there were three other noteworthy factors which also helped to build up the SUP. Either SLFP or SLFP-led governments brought about a number of progressive changes both in internal matters as well as foreign policy, which earned it the reputation of being a progressive party. While the principal reason for the base the SLFP was able to obtain in the working class may have been the patronage it was able to bestow as the ruling party, it must not be forgotten that progressive measures in relation to the working class as well as a liberal attitude towards trade unionism also helped the SUP in its effort to obtain working class backing.
Secondly, the defeat of the UNP in the 1956 General Elections certainly strengthened the belief of the masses of Sri Lanka in the vote as a means of changing governments. This belief, which had been fostered both by universal franchise which had existed since 1931, and the system of free education which despite its shortcomings, had reduced illiteracy to insignificant proportions, was of course still further strengthened by the experience of several general elections in subsequent years. However, it was not only this perfectly justified belief that governments could be changed by the vote, that was created among the people. There was also created the illusion that all that the masses had to do was to change a government in a parliamentary election once in five or six years, in order to get what they want. In other words, the parliamentary road meant for the masses the securing from above the fulfilment of their aspirations. All that was expected of them was the casting of a vote once in so many years. This kind of parliamentarism naturally helped to strengthen a purely parliamentary party like the SLFP, which was geared exclusively to seeking the vote of the people through patronage, demagogy and other unprincipled means. In this respect the SLFP enjoyed an advantage over the Left parties.
This kind of advantage purely parliamentary parties like the SLFP and the UNP will always enjoy over parties of the Left which try to bring about changes not merely from above but by activising the masses from below. Particularly in normal times the natural apathy of the masses tends to make them prefer parties which ask nothing of them except the vote in order to carry out their lavish promises. However, this advantage can be minimised by the Left parties reducing the intellectual and cultural gap between these parties and the broad masses by timely organisational preparations for elections, by participating more in the social and other activities of the people etc., and above all by talking to them not in Marxist jargon but in terms which are familiar to them. It cannot be said that the Left parties in Sri Lanka have acted with sufficient awareness of the above-mentioned considerations.
On the other hand, this opportunity may be taken to make another observation of an opposite nature. While participating in parliamentary elections, the Left parties have made no conscious effort to define even for themselves the possibilities as well as the limits of parliamentary politics as it exists today in Sri Lanka. The first serious attempt to do so has been made in the March 1978 Political Resolution of the Delegatesí Conference of the LSSP.
Thirdly, we had reason to mention earlier in connection with the formation of the SLFP that middle of the road elements who had earlier supported the Left due to the absence of any other alternative, began to turn to the newly formed SLFP. With the coming into power of the SLFP, such elements, especially from the petty bourgeoisie, began to turn in increasing numbers to the SLFP, thus strengthening its base in the country.
While, as stated above, several factors contributed to strengthening the SLFP in the years following 1956, it must not, however, be forgotten that the principal reason for the growth of this party has been the leadership it has taken in the movement for Sinhala as the only official language and for Buddhist revivalism.
It was in the above-mentioned context, to which we should add the pressure of the masses. whose political consciousness had not developed much beyond the level of anti-UNPism, that the LSSP, and the CP after it, were impelled into positions of closer and closer co-operation with the SLFP.
Even in 1956, the LSSP, while accepting the post of Leader of the Opposition, had stated that its position was one of responsive co-operation in relation to the MEP Government. In July 1960 there was not only a No Contest Pact with the SLFP, but in most constituencies there was mutual support for each otherís candidates. In 1964 a SLFP-LSSP Coalition Government was formed on the basis of an agreed programme of 14 points. In 1968 a united front of the SLFP, LSSP and CP was formed on the basis of a Common Programme, and after victory in the July 1970 General Elections, a SLFP-LSSP-CP United Front Government came into being.
In the process described above, in which the LSSP and CP, commencing from 1956, drew progressively closer to co-operation with the SLFP, there is a brief interlude where this process was interrupted. This interlude was a period of about a year, from mid-1963 to mid-1964 when there was a Left United Front on a joint programme between the LSSP, the MEP of Philip Gunawardena, and the CP. Although this front was greeted with much enthusiasm at the start, its position deteriorated before long. This was due principally to the demand of the MEP that a decision on the question of who should be the leader of the Front should not be postponed, but should be made without any further delay. With the approach of the SLFP to the LSSP to form a pact with it, the LSSP attempted to draw the MEP and CP along with it into the front with the SLFP. But since the terms the SLFP was prepared to offer in respect of ministries were not acceptable to the MEP or the CP, the LSSP alone formed the front with the SLFP in 1964 as described earlier, and the United Left Front of the LSSP, MEP and CP ceased to exist.
It is worth noting at this point that the change in its language position by the LSSP was made not, as is believed by many people, when it formed the Coalition Government with the SLFP in 1964, but a year earlier, when the United Left Front of the LSSP, MEP and CP was formed in mid-1963.
Chapter 4: The LSSP and the Minorities
The failure of the LSSP to build a political mass base either among the workers of Indian origin in the plantations or among the Tamils of the North is a matter that calls for examination.
Let us first take the case of the plantation workers. In the early period of the history of the LSSP, the LSSP had led the militant strikes of these workers in their first great awakening. However, these gains could not be consolidated or a proper political base built because of the repression of the war years. But the question arises, why was this not possible in the years following the war?
The answer to this lies first and foremost in the disfranchisement in 1948 of all these plantation workers of Indian origin. It is true, the LSSP voted in Parliament against this Bill. In fact, this was utilised to brand the LSSP as a pro-Indian and anti-Sinhalese party by the bourgeois leaders. (Indeed this was a revival of the old cry raised by Mr A.E. Goonesinghe, the reformist Labour leader in the pre-war years in his struggle against the LSSP for leadership of the urban workers.)
The opposition to this disfranchisement did not however, prevent the plantation workers of Indian origin from turning away from the LSSP to accept the leadership of the Ceylon Indian Congress, Mr Thondaman. As so often happens in the case of minorities suffering from a feeling of injustice, they tend to turn to racial organisations espousing their cause exclusively. instead of turning to non-racial minded working class organisations of a socialist character which alone can provide the ultimate solution. The "Bund", composed of Jewish workers in Czarist Russia is not a bad example. The LSSP could not of course compete with the Ceylon Indian Congress in its violent reaction to the discrimination practised by the UNP Government, nor could it like the Congress appeal to the racialist sentiments of the workers of Indian origin. This was the principal reason for the inability of the LSSP to build a political mass base among this section of the workers.
Also, the deprival of the franchise to this portion of the workers made them look more and more towards India and developments in the Indian political scene. They got effectively excluded from the mainstream of politics of the country in which they were living and working. The LSSPís position was that all workers of Indian origin who had made Ceylon their permanent home should be granted citizenship. But finally when an agreement on this question was arrived at between the Indian and Ceylon Governments, which went under the name of the Sirima-Shastri Pact, the LSSP accepted this solution as the best method of securing a solution, whatever may have been its drawbacks, to a question that was acting like a cancer in the body politic of the country.
Among the Tamils of the North although the reason for the failure of the LSSP to build a mass political base was essentially of the same nature as above, there were important differences which should be noted. In the first place, a very high proportion of the inhabitants of this area belong to the petty bourgeoisie. Their economic level is also higher generally than that of the Sinhalese petty bourgeoisie in the South, both because a proportionately higher number of them occupy professional, technical and clerical posts under the Government and because there has been a not inconsiderable inflow of money as pensions from Malaya where many Tamils from North Ceylon had worked in clerical and similar posts earlier under the Government of Malaya. And lastly, class antagonisms between a rich minority and the poor majority, had not arisen as had happened in the South.
True, caste differences were more acute than in the South, and helped partially as a result of this, both Samasamajists and Communists, were able to make some headway in the early post war years in spite of the unfavourable factors mentioned above. As a matter of fact, P. Kandiah of the Communist Party was able to win the Point Pedro constituency in 1956.
However, with the language question coming to occupy the centre of the stage in the countryís politics, the situation changed. Even the modest gains made by the Left parties were progressively wiped out. The LSSP as well as the CP continued tenaciously to stick to their official position of both Sinhala and Tamil as state languages till 1963. But this did not enable them even to retain the modest influence they had exercised in the North. As in the case of the plantation workers of Indian origin, class questions were superseded by "national" ones, and the Tamils of the North have come together politically as Tamils, believing this to be the only way of safeguarding their interests.
The position of the LSSP on the language question played an important role in the history of the party from 1956 onwards. It is therefore appropriate to devote some attention to this question.
The immediate occasion for the change of the LSSPís 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. However, it had been clear for a number of years that the LSSP had because of its position on the language question, been steadily losing its support among the Sinhala masses, who constituted the majority of the population. Persistence in its position on this question entailed the prospect of isolating itself from this section which, in addition to being the majority, also constituted the most highly politically conscious part of the population and had supplied the principal anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist forces. And, as the experience of the LSSP between the years 1956 and 1963 showed, there was no compensatory advantage among the Tamils in the North. As mentioned earlier, the LSSP could not compete with any degree of success for their support with the Federal Party. The principal reason for the change in the LSSPís position can thus be described as a tactical necessity.
From the principled point of view, there is little doubt that the LSSPís original position was correct. It is not unnatural that a national minority should have fears of discrimination against it especially on a question like language. In order to build national unity it is therefore the duty of the majority to be not only just but generous in order to remove the fears of the minority.
However, in the situation existing in Ceylon there was a complication arising not only from the fact that a consciousness of Ceylonese nationality had not yet developed, but also from the very history of the country. Although in the state of Ceylon, the Sinhalese constituted the majority and the Tamils the minority, the Sinhalese considered themselves to be the minority in the region, when one counted also the tens of millions of Tamils in South India. With a history of constant wars with the Tamils in the pre-colonial era, the Sinhalese considered that it was the Sinhala language and not Tamil which needed special protection and special guarantees to safeguard the position of the Sinhalese and their language. However unfounded these fears may have been, they were both widespread and deep among the Sinhalese population.
In the years that have followed 1956, two processes have been taking place of which we should take note. In the first place, although Sinhala has been the only official language in law, in practice Tamil has been increasingly used for official purposes. And the day is not distant perhaps when it will receive its due place in the law also. In other words, the country has been moving towards the position held by the LSSP in the face of opposition of having two official languages.
The second process has been an unfortunate one. Commencing with the language policy of 1956, there has been a growing feeling of discrimination against them among the Tamils of the North which has developed into a widespread conviction that they are being oppressed by the Sinhalese majority. This has led to the demand for a separate state called "Eelam". This may be a demand that is put forward intransigently only by the Youth, but it is a fact that the vast majority of Tamils in the North voted for the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which fought the elections on this demand.
The question may well be asked as to what the position would have been if the LSSP had joined the MEP in 1956 in putting forward the demand for Sinhala Only. There is little doubt that the LSSP would have played a leading role in the movement for Sinhala Only. It is also very likely that the position of the Left in general and of the LSSP in particular would have been much stronger today among the Sinhalese masses. Also the position of the SLFP would have been significantly weaker. However, it is a moot question how much closer Sri Lanka would have been to socialism.
For it must not be forgotten that although the movement for Sinhala as the only official language had the progressive aspect of being directed against the position occupied by English in the affairs of the state and took the form of a class struggle against the privileged English educated capitalist strata among the Sinhalese, it also had a reactionary aspect in so far as it was also directed against the Tamils. It would have been impossible for a party like the LSSP, which was wedded to the principle of the equal treatment without discrimination of all national minorities, to have played a leading role in such a campaign.
There is another aspect of this matter which may have importance for the future. As mentioned earlier, the movement for a separate state has grown with leaps and bounds among the Tamils of the North. The situation may develop to a point when it is only Sinhalese domination by military rule in the North that will be able to preserve the unity of the country. And even such a unity maintained by force may not be able to continue for long if an imperialist power decides in its own interest to back the movement for secession by a supply of military aid.
It is quite possible that it is only a government of the Left or a government in which the Left plays a leading role that will be able to prevent such a calamity. For, in spite of the inability of the parties of the Left to build a mass base among the Tamils of the North the masses of the North know that it is only from the parties of the Left that they can expect justice for all, free of racial discrimination. If the LSSP (and the CP along with it) had not waited several years before changing their position on language, but had instead taken the position of Sinhala Only from the commencement, such a role of acting as the bridge to produce a unified Ceylon would certainly not have been possible. This .therefore is a consideration that should also be borne in mind when considering the correctness or otherwise of the stand taken y the LSSP (and the CP along with it) in 1956.
Chapter 5: Tactical Questions
This may be a useful stage to reply to some of the criticisms made of the policies adopted by the LSSP at various times. In the first place there is the criticism that the LSSP should not have allowed the hartal of August 12th 1953 to be confined to one day, but should have continued it to bring about the downfall of the Government.
People who make this kind of criticism are often unaware of the situation that existed at the time and of the nature of the action itself. In the first place it should be borne in mind that the one-day hartal became possible at all because the Government of the day permitted the publicising of the call for the hartal both by publications and meetings and the very date for which it was fixed, weeks ahead of August 12th. (Let us remember that Mr Dudley Senanayake, having learned from experience clamped down an Emergency simultaneously with his cutting down of the rice ration in 1966.)
Secondly, only three organisations were prepared to issue a call for the one day hartal, namely the LSSP, the VLSSP-CP United Front, and the Federal Party. The SLFP considered that the masses had not yet reached a degree of political consciousness to justify such a call, while the Ceylon Indian Congress, led by Mr Thondaman, decided to confine themselves to public meetings of protest on that day. Is it suggested by the critics of the LSSP that the LSSP should unilaterally, without consulting the other parties with whom it had jointly called for a one-day hartal called for a continuation of the hartal on the second day?
Finally, and most important of all, it was the considered view of the LSSP (as well as, we believe, of the VLSSP-CP United Front) that the mass movement had reached only a stage of protest against the action of the Government in imposing the burdens it did on the masses, and not a stage where it was aiming at the overthrow of the Government.
In some places, police action continued after the 12th. But to the best of our knowledge, nowhere in the country did the masses attempt to continue the hartal on the second day. This bears out the correctness of the LSSPís estimate of the mass situation.
The question of what is the correct tactic to follow in a particular situation is often a difficult thing for a political party to decide. The advantages have to be balanced against the disadvantages and it becomes the duty of the leadership to decide what is the best course to follow after having taken all factors into consideration. There have been many occasions on which the LSSP has had to take decisions on tactical questions. This has been so not only because of its long history but also because of the constant changes that have taken place in the political situation in Sri Lanka.
A question that is sometimes asked is whether it would not have been better if the three Left parties that existed at the time had fought the 1947 general elections in a common front against the UNP. Such a question has no reality if only because the CP was still in the process of changing its attitude to the UNP to one of opposition. As far as the Samasamajists were concerned, they were divided into two parties, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Bolshevik Leninist Party (which soon after changed its name to Bolshevik Samasamaja Party). However, these two parties were able to establish a degree of co-operation in the elections. This enabled them together to win 15 seats.
Another question that might be asked is whether it would not have been desirable for the 3 Left parties to have fought the March 1960 General Elections together as a single front. In this matter also, the question is not a realistic one. Such a front would have been possible only on a common programme. And neither the LSSP nor the CP had as yet changed its position on the language question to one of Sinhala as the only official language.
It is a more realistic question to ask whether the LSSP should not have continued the ULF which had been formed in 1963, instead of joining up with the SLFP to form a Coalition Government in 1964. It has already been explained above that efforts were made by the LSSP to bring the MEP of Philip Gunawardena and the CP into the front. This effort failed, as was also explained earlier, because agreement could not be reached on the question of ministries. At least for the time being, Mrs Bandaranaike was not prepared to give any ministries either to the MEP or the CP.
The question still remains whether the LSSP should have formed the Coalition Government under these conditions. In this connection it should be appreciated that the United Left Front had been for some months reduced to a moribund state. And the ULF could not continue indefinitely in this state unless the internal difference which stood in the way of the re-activisation of the Front, was resolved. This difference really arose from the fact that the MEP was insisting on the immediate appointment of Philip Gunawardena as the leader of the Front. The LSSP position was that a decision on the question of who should be the leader of the Front should be postponed. If the MEP demand had been met, and Philip Gunawardena and been made the leader of the Front, the break-up of the ULF could have been prevented, and the need for a Coalition with the SLFP in mid-1964 would not have arisen. But what would have happened if such a course had been followed? Whatever may have been the attitude of the CP, there would almost certainly have been a serious split in the LSSP. This is a matter to which considerable attention should be paid when considering this question. As things turned out in the end, a large majority of the LSSP decided at its Conference in 1964 to form a Coalition Government with the SLFP on the terms proposed. A section of the defeated minority split from the party, while the remaining section of the defeated minority accepted the majority decision.
Lastly it is not intended here to make an exhaustive estimate of the advantages and disadvantages that flowed from the tactic of the LSSP in forming the United Front Government of 1970. It is necessary, however, to draw attention to the chief features of this experience.
In the first place, it should frankly be admitted that the tactic did not work out in practice as envisaged by the LSSP. The LSSP did not succeed in exposing and isolating the rightist leadership of the SLFP. This was partly due to the fact that the LSSP, along with the CP and other Left-minded forces in the SLFP succeeded in pushing the Rightist leadership, albeit unwillingly, to carry out several progressive measures. This strengthened the illusion among the masses regarding the progressive character of this leadership.
We should also mention here two unforeseen events that complicated the situation and hindered the working out of the tactic as expected. The insurgency of the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) of April 1971 resulted in a strengthening of the Right both within the Front and in the country generally. And secondly, the world economic crisis, affecting Sri Lanka adversely from mid-1972 onwards, while it was a blow to the United Front Government as a whole, was a particularly severe blow to the LSSP. For the masses had believed that the presence of the LSSP in the Government would lead to an improvement in their economic conditions.
On the other hand several progressive changes were brought about by the United Front Government. The Business Undertakings (Acquisition) Act, the New Constitution of 1972, the Land Reform Act of 1972 and the nationalisation in 1975 of all local and foreign company owned plantations deserve special mention. It is worthy of mention that one of the advantages gained by the LSSP as a result of its holding ministerial office from 1970 to 1975, was the removal of unreasoning fears that had been spread among the broad masses by its Rightist opponents from the very inception of the LSSP.
An attempt to evaluate the correctness or otherwise of tactics followed in the past can be of use to the extent that such an evaluation can help as a guide to the future. However, it should be admitted that to arrive at a correct decision on some of these questions is not an easy task today. We have no doubt that historians of the future will be in a better position to come to more correct conclusions on these questions. What is of the greatest importance, however, is to evolve a correct policy for the period facing us today.
Chapter 6: July 1977 Ė What Next?
We now come to the fourth and latest period in the LSSPís history, to which we referred at the beginning. This commences with the sweeping victory of the UNP in the General Elections of July 1977. Out of a total of 168 seats, the UNP won 140, receiving 51% of the total vote polled.
There were, of course, many reasons for the UNP victory and its magnitude. The break-up of the United Front, the misuse of emergency powers, corruption, family bandyism, and the distribution of jobs among relatives and political supporters, were some of these reasons. But there is no doubt that the basic cause was the high prices and shortages of essential commodities. It is clear that the masses whose living standards had suffered particularly in the period between 1972 and 1977, voted to put a UNP Government into power believing the UNP promises to reduce the cost of living and provide employment for the unemployed youth.
In other words, it was economic issues that impelled the masses to turn in this way to the UNP. Indeed, one can say that this was the first election in Sri Lanka where the masses exercised their vote in this manner for economic reasons. In the 1970 General Elections too, the question of price rises did play a significant part in bringing about the defeat of the UNP. But it should not be forgotten that the secret pact of the UNP with the Federal Party also played a not inconsiderable role.
The important thing to realise is that politics has entered a new stage in Sri Lanka. For the first time since 1956 issues like language and religion have ceased to occupy the important place in politics that they occupied in the eyes of the majority of people, and economic questions have come forward to occupy the centre of the political scene in Sri Lanka. This is a matter of enormous importance for the Left in general and for the LSSP in particular. For one can now say, perhaps for the first time in our history, that a real opportunity has arisen to win a majority of the people to a programme of socialist transformation which alone can solve the urgent living problems of the masses.
It would be a mistake to imagine that this task is an easy one. In the first place, let us remember that the General Elections of July 1977 led not merely to the victory of the UNP, the party of the Ceylonese bourgeoisie, but also to a heavy defeat for the Left.
The two Left Parties together polled only 5.6 % of the total vote polled. This was the lowest proportion of votes polled by the Left in the entire post war period. The LSSP polled 225,317 votes (3.6%), while the CP polled 123,856 votes (2.0%.
To be sure, there were several reasons for this poor result on the part of the Left parties. In the first place, although the LSSP left the Government in September 1975, the CP (and along with it the other Left-inclined SLFP MPs who left the Government later) continued to remain in the Government till the beginning of 1977. The United Left Front was formed far too late for it to have a significant impact on the masses.
Secondly, the ULF never succeeded in developing to the point where it could seriously be considered by the people as an alternative to the UNP. Those who were opposed to the UNP therefore tended to vote for the SLFP as the only party that appeared as having a chance of defeating the UNP and forming a government in place of the UNP. There is no doubt that many who agreed with the political programme of the ULF voted for the SLFP for this reason.
Finally, as pointed out earlier, the SLFP, and in particular its reactionary leadership, do not as yet stand exposed before the masses. It is only the more politically developed sections of the masses that realise that the progressive role of the right-wing leadership of the SLFP has been exhausted and that from now onward they can only serve the needs of capitalism.
On the other hand, disillusionment in the UNP Government has proceeded apace. The UNP Manifesto for the General Elections of July 1977 which had complained that under the previous regime prices had risen as never before, the purchasing power of the rupee in respect of consumersí goods had steadily declined, and the cost of living had risen to himalayan heights, specifically promised that "the UNP will give the utmost priority to reducing the cost of living", "bring down the cost of living by reducing the artificially increased prices of imported and local goods in day to day use", as well as "ensure that the consumer shall not be exploited".
Everyone knows that what has happened is exactly the opposite. And this is the principal reason for the disillusionment in the UNP Government. And this disillusionment is likely to grow, if only because there is no early solution possible for the world economic crisis. That is to say, there is no solution under the capitalist economic order.
That is the reason why, just as there is no solution for our economic problems under a UNP Government, so also there is no solution possible under a Government of the SLFP. The principal difference between the two is that while the UNP pursues the capitalist path in an open and unashamed manner, the SLFP will do so less openly and more hesitantly. But that it will be the capitalist path that it will essentially follow is clear from the concessions granted to local capitalists and the invitation extended to foreign capitalists in the last two years of Mrs Bandaranaikeís Government. Indeed, if not for the opposition of the Communist Party and T.B. Subasinghe, the Minister of Industries, it is Mrs Bandaranaikeís Government and not the UNP Government that would have introduced the Free Trade Zone.
Especially in a country like Sri Lanka, which has got accustomed to changing governments through elections, a principal difficulty in the way or the ULF coming to power in place of the UNP or the SLFP has been its inability to emerge as a real alternative. We noted earlier that this was an important reason for the poor results obtained in the last General Elections. Even so, these results showed that the Left continues to be a significant force in the country.
The task before the Left in the coming period is, using this strength as its base, to attempt to develop into a real alternative.
However, if such an aim is to be achieved, it will be necessary for the ULF not only to give guidance to the inevitable mass struggles that lie ahead, but also to present its socialist programme to the masses in a manner that they will understand and which will correspond to their aspirations. In the elaboration of such a programme a heavy responsibility devolves on the LSSP which is not only the largest Left party but the Left party with the longest experience.
If such a task is to be effectively performed, the first thing to realise is that the masses are looking for a new road. The masses of today are no longer prepared to be guided by old slogans. They have learned from their own experience that nationalisation by itself is no solution. Appeals to the masses to sacrifice for the sake of the country will not succeed. What they want is a way by which they can steadily improve their own conditions. The fact of the matter is that the majority is guided by self-interest.
Our task is not to try to instil sentiments of self-sacrifice among the people. Instead, our task is to evolve a system where self-interest will coincide with and serve the needs of the public interest. Indeed, we have to strive to secure the opposite of what happens under capitalism where self-interest is pursued only too often at the sacrifice of the public interest.
The socialism that Sri Lanka needs is one which will serve the needs of development by introducing a system where the ordinary citizen by pursuing his self-interest will simultaneously be serving the interests of the country. This can only be done through the devolution of power and responsibility on the masses. Details of such a scheme will have to be worked out on the lines of the principles of self-management in application both to state enterprises and territorial administration, in the context of an overall socialist plan which will serve the needs of the economic development of Sri Lanka.
The LSSP was founded in December 1935 with two broad aims. While one was the winning of National Independence, the other was the establishment of a socialist system. The first aim of winning National Independence has now been completed. What remains to be accomplished now is the second aim of establishing a socialist system which alone can solve the problems of the masses. In the present period, where the solution of their economic problems has quite clearly become the prime question for the masses, the task of the LSSP is to arm itself both politically and organisationally for the achievement of that second aim.
1. Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party, led by Philip Gunawardena.
2. As a matter of fact, it was the VLSSP led by Philip Gunawardena, and not the SLFP, which first changed its policy of both Sinhala and Tamil as State languages, to one of Sinhala only. The SLFP made its change only some weeks later at the end of 1955.