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Edmund Samarakkody and Trotskyism in Sri Lanka

T. Perera, Revolutionary Trails Edmund Samarakkody: A Political Profile, Social Scientists Association, 2006. Paperback, 222pp, Rs.400.

Reviewed by D. Wijeratne

BEGINNING in the early 1930s Edmund Samarakkody was associated with the working class movement and Marxist politics in Sri Lanka, not merely during the forward sweep of its heyday, but importantly during its times of crisis and retreat. Adhering to the fundamental principles and practice of Marxism-Leninism, he participated to the end of his life in the working-class-led anti-capitalist struggle, for the overthrow of capitalism-imperialism and its replacement by an international socialist order.

Inspired in his youth by the tumultuous tramway strike in 1929 during which workers burned down the Maradana Police Station, and law students with flags and red sashes demonstrated in sympathy with the strikers, Edmund sat down to write a leaflet entitled, "Students of Ceylon Arise". Urging the workers to fight he exhorted the students to "shake off your vain splendour, come out to the streets and join the workers to save the destruction of civilisation and bring universal equality, happiness and prosperity".

A youthful cry indeed! Many impressionable young man of his age might have been similarly inspired, even if they have not put down their feelings in so many words. How many nevertheless would have clung to their thoughts and developed them into maturity, over a span of 60 years?

In point of fact, most of the one-time stalwarts of the left movement with whom Edmund had collaborated fell by the wayside, each in his own time, and succumbed to the established social order. Edmund is among the few who stood their ground. This would have been not surprising, if in the meantime the self-same issues which tormented society then had not developed into menacing proportions, both nationally and internationally. The fate of mankind is indeed more terrifying to contemplate today than it was in 1929.

As a Marxist-Leninist Edmund believed that the major problems of society, such as those of the working class, the peasantry and the oppressed and toiling masses and all forms of political and national oppression, are inextricably bound up with the capitalist-imperialist world order, and that the path to their solution lay in its revolutionary overthrow through working class struggle.

Without being merely a biographical narrative about Edmund Samarakkody, T. Perera's work serves as a welcome study to those readers interested particularly in the history of the left movement, the so-called "collapse of the left" and even "the death of communism". What had appeared to be a mass-based movement and a revolutionary Marxist party (the LSSP), making great strides in challenging the capitalist order in Sri Lanka, ended up becoming collaborators of the capitalist class, as co-partners in coalition with the SLFP and being reduced to the position of servitors of the very same capitalist order against which they had been fighting.

Here the reader is taken back by the author to the momentous developments within the Marxist movement in the early 1940s. It is against the backdrop of the crisis of imperialism during World War II, that in fact the LSSP, founded in 1935, actually underwent a transformation in an attempt to forge itself into a revolutionary party, and helped build the BLPI (Bolshevik Leninist Party of India) of which the LSSP was to be its Sri Lankan section.

However, with the failure of the BLPI to utilise the momentous revolutionary possibilities opening up in 1942 in India, and the consequent emergence of a relatively settled national capitalist order under the Indian National Congress led by Gandhi, the BLPI itself broke up and immersed in the politics of the Congress.

The split in the local section of the BIPI itself into the reformist LSSP led by Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera and the BSP (Bolshevik Samasamaja Party) led by Colvin de Silva and Leslie Goonewardene, and the subsequent unprincipled re-unification of the two groups as the LSSP, soon paved the way to the transformation of the LSSP once again into a parliamentary reformist, social democratic party.

Although a Marxist tendency did emerge in the party subsequently and existed up to the 1960s, it was the reformists who managed to take over the party and the movement and eventually ended up in the coalition with the capitalist SLFP in the 1970s. Edmund all along worked within the Marxist tendency up to the split in 1964. In due course, however, with the acknowledged leadership of the revolutionary wing itself succumbing to the reformists, it was a largely a disparate section which split in 1964 to form the LSSP-R (Lanka Sama Samaja Party Revolutionary).

Accordingly it was from 1964 onwards that Edmund's role in the Left movement begins to acquire greater significance. In Edmund's own view, as the author of the biography suggests, the crucial shift in the direction of parliamentary reformism had its origins in the late 1940s, and the coalition politics of the 1960s and 1970s were the eventual end result of that regressive process.

While the role of the Marxist tendency and of Edmund himself in relation to the task of averting the rightward slide in the party from the 1940s onwards are problems that could be examined in further detail, T. Perera's book provides in particular a broad but valuable survey of the part that Edmund together with his left-wing colleagues played in seeking to build once again a revolutionary party and movement in Sri Lanka.

T. Perera's profile of Edmund is no run-of-the-mill biographical narrative. Edmund's political life is here studied, as necessarily has to be done to render it meaningful, in the context of a variety of issues affecting the international socialist movement. The author has endeavoured to do so within the ambit of a small book. He has also made use of published and unpublished material.

It might be said that it was the last twenty five years of Edmund's life that add stature and make him a more remarkable personality in the Marxist movement. He alone, among the first generation leaders of the movement such as Philip, N.M., Colvin and Leslie, had without succumbing to parliamentary reformism steadfastly adhered to the path of Marxism-Leninism.

In the words of his longtime comrade and collaborator Meryl Fernando in his introduction: "Edmund kept his faith in socialism. But he had to swim against the current in his attempt to build a viable political group in Sri Lanka, to help build a Trotskyist centre internationally. He remained in the arena of struggle till the end".

D. Wijeratne was a member of the LSSP from the 1950s to the 1964 split; subsequently a member of the LSSP-R and RWP.