Trotskyism in Sri Lanka

Written by La Verité

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

(This document was circulated in English translation from La Veritéby the US Socialist Organizer in December 2008. We drew it to the attention of Charles Wesley Ervin who has researched Trotskyism in Sri Lanka and India extensively. He wrote to La Verité in 2009. To the best of our knowledge, his letter was never published by La Verité or Socialist Organizer – at the time of writing July 2016. We are appending it here as we think it provides valuable clarifications. We have maintained American spellings in the SO document, making only a few corrections to obvious errors.)

All Trotskyist militants, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, deserve a balance sheet of the destruction of the LSSP. This discussion is not simply about an historical problem, but is aimed at understanding the current role of the International. Nothing is closed to this discussion. The unfolding of the Fourth International’s role on the Indian subcontinent, as elsewhere, implies a discussion not only about the degeneration of the LSSP, but also of the relationship between the LSSP and the International Secretariat-United Secretariat.

(Contribution to a Discussion)

The Fourth World Congress of the Fourth International, among other decisions, put on the agenda of the next world Congress an assessment of the Fourth International itself. Without a doubt, one part of any such discussion must be the history of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). It was founded in 1935, and in 1941 became the Ceylonese section of the Fourth International. Later, it fell victim to an opportunist degeneration, entering a bourgeois government in 1964 and then being expelled from the Pabloite United Secretariat.

While there is plenty to say about the past and present situation in Sri Lanka, this article is confined to a discussion of the LSSP’s politics before 1964 and its relationship with the international Pabloite leadership. There are two key questions in assessing what happened (and we will quote directly from documents):

• Are the Trotskyist leaders in Sri Lanka completely or mostly responsible? That, in many respects, was the opinion of Gerry Healy and of the Spartacists, for whom the social origins of the LSSP leaders kept them from making revolutionary advances. It was, notably, the opinion of the United Secretariat in 1964 as it is today: the leaders of the LSSP were incapable of taking the good advice offered by an almost omniscient and omnipotent International, which prohibited any discussion on the LSSP. But if only the leadership of a national section is ‘responsible’, what is the role of an International?

• What about the role of the International leadership? And in the case of the LSSP and the International Secretariat, didn’t the latter carry the overwhelming responsibility for the evolution of the former, at every juncture encouraging what led to the degeneration? That is what we will examine.

Everyone recognizes the treason of 1964, but was it a limited accident, where ‘Trotskyism had suffered a serious blow in Ceylon’? Was it inevitable, as Gerry Healy suggests, because the LSSP leaders ‘continually avoided establishing a leadership deeply rooted in the working class’? Or was it something no one would speak about? After all, not a single article on Sri Lanka was published in Quatrième Internationale, the theoretical journal of the United Secretariat, between 1965 and 1970?

All Trotskyist militants, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, deserve a balance sheet of the destruction of the LSSP. This discussion is not simply about an historical problem, but is aimed at understanding the current role of the International. Nothing is closed to this discussion. The unfolding of the Fourth International’s role on the Indian subcontinent, as elsewhere, implies a discussion not only about the degeneration of the LSSP, but also of the relationship between the LSSP and the International Secretariat-United Secretariat. The appearance and development of a revolutionary organization in Ceylon (Sri Lanka’s colonial name until 1972), which gradually came to join the Fourth International, unfolded simultaneously with the contraction of English imperialism in the international arena, particularly between the two World Wars. Clearly, there is a relationship between the two. English imperialism’s retreat internationally fed a rise in the national claims in the colonies.

Ceylon was a particular type of colony for the British Empire. This can be understood by reading the famous and significant passage in the foreword to the French edition of Leon Trotsky’s The Permanent Revolution. Polemicizing against Stalin, Trotsky writes:

"It is not true that the world economy represents only the simple sum of similar national portions. It is not true that the specific features are but one "supplement of the general features", a kind of wart on the figure. Actually, the national characteristics form the originality of the fundamental features for long years’.

This originality is loud and clear in the case of Sri Lanka. For the British Empire, Ceylon was an especially productive agricultural colony. Tea, the island’s principal product, was introduced there in 1839, soon after the final conquest of the island by British imperialism. There were also massive plantations of coconuts and rubber plants. Sri Lanka saw the first tests of natural rubber production in all of Asia. While this required significant hands-on labor, the payoffs were substantial. It was not a settler colony, like in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or — to a lesser degree — Kenya. The island’s strategic location, like Singapore (another British colony) a necessary point of passage on the way to the Pacific, is another piece of the puzzle, which became even more valuable after 1939. Aden, Malta, and Gibraltar played comparable roles, albeit in different ways.

The development of capitalism in Sri Lanka led to strong social modifications in a relatively small area (65,000 square kilometers, roughly the area of Ireland, in contrast with the 4.5 million square kilometers of colonial India, but also with the few square kilometers of Gibraltar or Singapore): the development of a strong, active rural proletariat living under miserable, quasi-feudal conditions, and often made up of Indians brought forcibly from the continent, as well as the Tamils, making up some 85% of the proletariat in 1931, and who were especially exploited ; the development of an urban petit bourgeois class of small shopkeepers, often Tamils as well; a concentrated group of landowners tied to English imperialism, which ensured their survival; and the progressive appearance of an indigenous bourgeoisie. Agricultural production led to massive exports: Sri Lanka became the third-largest exporter of tea and the eighth-largest producer of rubber. A commercial infrastructure (railroads, docks and ports, banks, etc.) was built little by little. A young, concentrated proletariat, conscious of its role, began to develop slowly from the end of the 19th century. The first trade union was established in 1893.

As one LSSP militant wrote: ‘In a society where paid labor relations coexisted with vestiges of feudalism, where there were classes, castes, communal and religious divisions, and where the social classes were at the same time foreign and local, freedom, equality, and social reform were important watchwords.’

This economic development, relative but nonetheless real, and the strategic location of the island led English colonialism to create in Ceylon some institutions that, while formally autonomous, were in fact closely dependent on Great Britain. A body of elected representatives was created in 1910; in 1920, the indigenous population became the majority in this body; and since 1931, there has been universal suffrage. This succession of dates is on a deliberate continuum, representing a theory of government based on gradually diffusing the British model of parliamentary democracy to the colonies by means of the ‘Commonwealth’ and thus containing, with the greatest degree of flexibility possible, political and social clashes. It was Malcolm MacDonald, Britain’s Colonial Secretary, speaking in the House of Commons, who was clearest on this subject: ‘In Ceylon, winning freedom has already gone quite far [in the sense meant by MacDonald-author]. In other [colonies], it is necessarily a much slower process’.

British imperialism was beginning to prepare for its great collapse. The great economic crisis of 1929 and the successive collapse of the raw materials, such as that for rubber in Ceylon, led in a number of colonial countries (Ceylon, as well as Algeria and Indo-China, both French colonies at the time) to the increasing concentration of landed property and, thereafter, to the ruin of most of small farming communities. Obviously, this led in turn to an increase in people falling into proletarianized or marginalized groups, which took refuge in the large cities, beginning with the capital, Colombo.

It was in this context, as well as the regional reaction to the international victory of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and in relation to a series of labor strikes (such as the Colombo general strike in 1920, the violent 1920 tramways strike in 1929, etc.), that young Sri Lanka students in London, many from wealthy backgrounds, founded the Lanka Sama Samaja Party in December 1935. The party’s name reveals the island’s political situation: ‘Sama Samaja’ is an expression meaning both ‘equality’ and ‘socialism’. The least one can say of these young militants is that while they were familiar with the debates in the international workers’ movement by virtue of their metropolitan bearings, they had not yet developed a full perspective on the world or on the workers’ movement. Their social origins, undeniably, were often used to explain the treachery (some 30 years later!) of the LSSP leadership. For example, as Gerry Healy wrote:

‘As the capitalist building managed by Mrs. Bandaranaike began to burn, it was quite natural that these children of aristocrats — Goonewardene, de Silva, Perera — should come, in their own way, to the rescue of Mrs. Bandaranaike and her class’.

That’s too simplistic! The essence will be found elsewhere. These revolutionary nationalist militants set out at once to build a party. They went from 30 militants in 1936 to 700 in 1937 and to approximately 3,000 in 1940. They also struggled to create trade unions and organized significant labor strikes. And they had electoral successes: two deputies were elected to the State Council in March 1936. Recall that in the same period (1939), Trotskyists, including Ta Thu Thau and Tran van Thach, were elected in Indo-China. The masses in the colonial countries were turning to radical organizations (Trotskyists, the LSSP, etc.), including in the electoral arena. This was underlined by Leon Trotsky in his ‘Open Letter to the Workers and Peasants of India’: ‘The struggle for national independence, for an independent Indian republic, is indissolubly linked up with the agrarian revolution, with the nationalization of the banks and trusts, with a number of other economic measures aiming to raise the living standard of the country and to make the toiling masses the masters of their own destiny. Only the proletariat in an alliance with the peasantry is capable of executing these tasks’.

Sixty years later, this text is still relevant.

The electoral success of the LSSP is not so much a sign of some kind of electoralist degeneration; moreover, the party’s elected officials were particularly active in Parliament, defending on every occasion the party’s program and demands. And while the LSSP program of 1935 was fuzzy in its origins, it was refined in 1936 and at the party’s second conference in 1937 with slogans that included the nationalization of oil, the eight-hour workday, and national independence. ‘One of the strongest points of the early LSSP was its orientation to the Tamils, the core of Ceylon's proletariat’. The LSSP defended the democratic rights of the oppressed and exploited national minorities, a credit to the young party that was one of its characteristics for many, many years.

The isolated political scene created the conditions for the development of the LSSP: a weak social democracy, closely linked to English colonialism; a fascination with the victorious Russian Revolution on the part of the younger generations; quiet uneasiness over the zigzags of the Third International (the failure of the Chinese revolution, the ultraleftism of the ‘Third Period’, etc.); and the absence of a significant bourgeois nationalist movement like that of Ghandi’s Congress Party in India, for example. The LSSP was still a vague party both politically and organizationally. But, we should repeat, that was not the essential problem in the 1935-39 period.

The growing threat of world war only exacerbated these tensions. Stalinist policies, which subordinated the movements of the colonial peoples to the diplomacy of the Kremlin bureaucracy (Popular Fronts in 1935-8; the Stalin-Hitler pact in 1939; etc.) were discussed within the LSSP. A number of its leaders took Trotskyist positions, including in favor of the theory of permanent revolution — a burning question for anti-imperialist militants. This group was called the ‘T Group’. As a result of all this, the LSSP in 1940 affirmed its distrust of the Third International and expelled the Stalinist minority.

The 1940 text affirmed clearly and correctly several principles: the rejection of the theory of ‘socialism in one country’, characterized as ‘non-Marxist’; a critique of Popular Frontism; a rejection of the subordination of the International to the diplomacy of the Kremlin; and, above all, the condemnation of the Third International as a traitorous organization. But one must note what was missing from the discussion: the role of the Kremlin in Hitler’s rise to power; its counterrevolutionary role in the Spanish Civil War; the Moscow Trials and the liquidation of the old Bolsheviks; and, most important, the total absence of any mention of the Fourth International, proclaimed in 1938, and the need for a new International. It was if the Comintern’s treachery, as established by the LSSP in its 1940 document, had consequences only for Sri Lanka.

Nevertheless, this declaration was undeniably a step forward. The LSSP broke unambiguously with Stalinism and became what we would call and independent workers’ party. There was an undeniable political maturation, but the leadership did not make it so that the entire party would benefit from this experience. The expulsion of the Stalinists was a ‘fait accompli’ organized by the leadership majority, with no notable influence on the party’s internal life, the membership have been left out of the discussion.

The unleashing of World War II saw the leaders of the LSSP adopt an internationalist stance, even before the Japanese military offensive at the end of 1941. The two LSSP deputies voted against war appropriations in 1939. A series of strikes erupted, supported by the LSSP. Party gatherings were broken up violently by the police. Then the leaders, including the deputies, were arrested. In March 1942, the British government banned the LSSP.

It was at a clandestine conference held in April 1941 that the LSSP proclaimed political solidarity with the Fourth International and adopted democratic centralism. It is said that while this went against the will of the majority of the party leadership, it was ‘obliged’ to make this decision — as if hesitating was some kind of venial sin (we will make no mention here of mortal sin). At any rate, the LSSP adopted democratic centralism. The transformation of the LSSP was complete, but given the clandestine conditions it was but a formal transformation, decided only at the top; again, this decision was not that of the entire party.

The revolutionary fight of the LSSP did not halt after the declaration of war and took forms that would feed (and justifiably so!) the epic story of the organization internationally, including the spectacular escape of the imprisoned leaders, who fled after winning their guards to the party! Some of the leaders left for India and contributed to the formation and then to the leadership of a pan-Indian Trotskyist party (the ‘All-India Party’).

There are two contrasting explanations of the creation of the Bolshevik Leninist party of India (BLPI), section of the Fourth International: it was either the exclusive work of the ‘samasamajists’ or they used the creation of the Indian party for their own needs. The latter theory is affirmed by a former LSSP leader. As always, reality is at the same time both simpler and more nuanced: the LSSP believed at the time that the independence of Sri Lanka required a defeat of British imperialism at least on the Indian subcontinent and that it would require some kind of ad hoc political structure, which was to be an assembling of the militants of the Fourth International. There is no question that drawing the balance sheet of Trotskyist activities in India would be difficult. But such an assessment would be an horrendous indictment of the international leadership after the Second World Congress. The unified party wrote in its program:

‘The revolution in Ceylon is dependent on and is indeed an integral part of the Indian revolution’.

It was at this time that the revolt in India in 1942 known as the ‘August Struggle’ exploded. Ghandi’s Congress Party raised the slogan ‘Quit India’. British imperialism set out to crush through violent repression — including with airpower — all the nationalist leaders and the demonstrations by millions of workers, peasants, and the unemployed that threatened British colonial power. Lack of political preparation became manifest, made worse by the Stalinist sabotage that is the main explanation for the failure of this struggle.

The LSSP deputies who had escaped from prison, N.M. Perera and P. Gunewardena, were again stopped by the police in 1944, stripped of their seats (for repeated absences at Parliament!) and put on trial. They transformed their trial into an anti-imperialist platform. That the LSSP leaders undertook such militant activities was attributed to the Fourth International (the Times of Ceylon suggested that the island specialized in the ‘export of Bolsheviks’). As these militants and this party moved closer to the Fourth International, the question became how the International leadership would react.

The anger of the Indian masses, repressed after the failure of the ‘August Struggle’, reappeared even stronger in 1945, both in reaction to the defeat of the Japanese military and the violent repression carried out by British imperialism, reeling in crisis. This push was part of the post-war revolutionary wave that included the collapse of the Kuomintang ‘nationalists’ and the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, leading to the creation of a deformed workers’ state.

British imperialism , with its own unique brand of cynicism — but especially with the direct complicity of Labour Party, which had come to power in 1945, as well as the Kremlin bureaucracy, the bourgeois leaders of the Congress Party and the Moslem League — organized an ‘independence’ that was characterized by the ex nihilo creation of conflict between townspeople. Tens of thousands of deaths resulted. Today, the leaders of Pakistan and India threaten nuclear strikes against each other; one should not forget that this flows from the actors in the 1947 ‘independence’ struggle. This competition also led to the creation of separate States. And the final consequence of this false independence has been the obstruction of the birth of an economic power that could exist without dependence on Great Britain. ‘Divide and conquer’ is a foundational principle of imperialism.

The story is one of absolute butchery from town to town, with the creation of geographic monstrosities such as Pakistan — cut in two by India, and nearly 2,000 kilometers apart — and India itself, flanked on the east by Burma and on the south by Ceylon, and threatened on its northern border.

The independence of Ceylon was characterized by the leaders of the Sri Lankan section as the creation of an ‘Asian Ulster’, which is a rather good definition. As C. de Silva, one of the leaders of the LSSP, wrote: ‘Our connected nation has a new guard recruited on the spot’.

This independence comes with the establishment of a defense accord between the two countries, permitting one to intervene in the other’s territory. It is rather difficult to imagine Sri Lanka troops disembarking in Portsmouth and then patrolling London! Moreover, Great Britain maintained control of two naval air bases on the island. So that everything is clear, English is the official language, and the head of State was, until the 1970s, to be the Queen of England!

At the time of independence, two organizations with genuine roots in the working class claimed to have represented the Fourth International in Sri Lanka since 1944. One was the result of a split in the BLPI, and had again taken the name LSSP (with N.M. Perera and P. Gunawardena); it continued to suffer the same political weaknesses of the pre-1941 LSSP. The other was the section of the Fourth International, with Leslie Goonewardene, Colin de Silva, Edmund Samarakkody, and Bala Tampoe. The first group was satisfied with the ‘incomplete independence’ and abstained in Parliament when the question came up for a vote; the second group spoke of ‘false independence’ and voted against the question. The International Secretariat (IS) supported the second group, but regretted that unity was not possible.

This situation saw a striking declaration from the International Secretariat published in Quatrième Internationale in January 1948, from which we will quote extensively. It was titled ‘The Trotskyist Electoral Victory and the Independence of Ceylon’. It begins: ‘The Trotskyist electoral victory in Ceylon is a cause for great joy among the militants of the Fourth International throughout the world’ and puts the Sri Lankan section and the ‘dissident’ organization on the same level. This victory consisted of the election (for the two organizations combined) of 15 deputies. At a moment when the question for the masses is whether the country’s independence is real or not, the IS began its declaration with an official statement official statement, of internal use (and also extremely relative) regarding electoral victory. The declaration explained the victory as the result of the ‘deep roots’ of the Trotskyists in the masses and by the possibility for an oppressed people to join together in a revolutionary party (both reasonable explanations), but also by a third reason definitely more debatable: ‘It is possible, at least, in the colonial countries, to circumvent the obstacle put up by the Stalinist and social-democratic traitors’.

Commenting on the two positions taken (the vote in Parliament by the official section against false independence and the abstention of the ‘dissenting’ section), the IS severely and quite specifically condemned the abstention of the ‘dissenting’ deputies as being in opposition to the unyielding struggle of the Fourth International for the complete independence of the colonial peoples, and indicated that the IS ‘takes no responsibility for this position’. This clear declaration indicates that the IS in 1948 was not (at least not yet!) a center for liquidation, but it stands in total contradiction with the beginning of the same declaration. How could the IS be pleased with the election of deputies who oppose the ‘unyielding struggle’? And how can they open a dialogue with them (‘The word is to the dissidents’, concludes the article). The IS, with this declaration, sowed confusion — not yet liquidation, but only confusion.

Paradoxically, it was in Ceylon, where a real Trotskyist organization existed, that the transition to even a formal independence proceeded most calmly and without too much threat to imperialism. In June 1950, unity was achieved among the forces claiming to be Trotskyist — again, without a thorough discussion and without the participation of P. Gunawerdena.

The dominant bourgeois party in Ceylon until 1956 was the United National Party (UNP), formed by a coalition of right-wing bourgeois elements. It was a typically corrupt, comprador party, living off the crumbs of British imperialism. From its ranks came the split with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of S. Bandaranaïke in 1951, a bourgeois ‘national’ party that aimed — using populist language — to preserve bourgeois power by modifying some of its forms, particularly those related to the very existence of an indigenous bourgeoisie. Such splits within the local bourgeoisies were a regular trend in the post-war period.

For the Third World Congress of 1951, where Pablo carried out his well-known violent liquidationist attack and where the so-called ‘Pabloist’ theses were adopted, he wrote: ‘In Ceylon, the continuing progress of our forces … opens the perspective for great victories in the near term’. We should point out that the French majority voted against these theses. Pablo’s report (which could not be amended) was worse still: ‘In Ceylon, a situation is developing that opens the prospect, if certain conditions are met, for a significant victory for our movement. Our organization is in discussions with the CP of that country to create a united front for the next elections, which could bring about the defeat of the governmental bourgeois party and open the practical possibility of the formation of a government of workers’ parties’.

The only political perspective is a purely electoral coalition with the CP, characterized in the quote above as a ‘workers’ party’ — the same as the Sri Lankan section.

As is well known, the 10th Plenum of February 1952 accelerated this revisionism. What concerns us here is the affirmation made in the report adopted by the majority: ‘To the comrades of Bolivia and Ceylon, the International says in actuality: power is within your grasp, not in ten years, but immediately, in the next few years to come, if not this year (most particularly for Ceylon)’. It is a question of winning a majority, ‘even a parliamentary majority, and of constituting a workers’ government, the first step towards a genuine seizure of power in Ceylon, supported by the mobilization and revolutionary organization of the masses’.

Everything one needs to know can be found in this brief quotation. The first political command is to gain a parliamentary majority, then win the government, then follow up with a ‘genuine’ seizure of power and, finally, on track, the masses. A ‘genuine’ seizure of power makes one think of the famous distinction made earlier, by the social-democratic leader Leon Blum in 1936, between the exercise of power and the seizure of power. But Pablo was the secretary of the Fourth International. The precision of the deadlines is not a secondary question: the year (‘if not this year’) determined by Pablo for the seizure of power by the LSSP was 1952, an election year.

The IS explicitly set an electoral victory as an objective for the LSSP, a party that had but a dozen deputies out of 100 elected officials. It was a completely unrealizable goal. The expectation set by the Congress for the LSSP in February 1951 (‘the LSSP will fight in the next election to win a parliamentary majority’) was encouraged, supported, theorized, and approved by the International Secretariat.

The same August 1951 issue of Quatrième Internationale, which includes the texts from the Third World Congress, published a short but revealing article on Ceylon. It affirmed that because of the split in the UNP, the right-wing party, ‘it is assured of defeat in the general elections that will take place in 1952’. The LSSP decided to ‘engage the fight in the next general elections for the majority on the basis of an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist program’, which ‘raises the question of a united front between the LSSP and the CP of Ceylon in relation to the next electoral struggle’. And the article ends with this curious paragraph: ‘In Parliament, the LSSP holds 14 seats. The CP has only three. Were there to be dissidence within the LSSP (at the moment of the unification of the Trotskyists) regarding a united front with the CP, there would be only five seats. But a united front between the LSSP and the CP would stimulate the confidence of the masses in their own forces’.

This astounding arithmetic hardly masks the will to dissolve the revolutionary party into a mainly electoral coalition, which — by the presence of the CP — would ‘stimulate the confidence of the masses’. It was aimed, in fact, at the dissolution of the LSSP.

The defeat of the UNP, however ‘assured’ by the IS, did not happen! On the contrary, the UNP made gains in the elections by stressing the economic ‘boom’ tied to the war in Korea and engaging in a series of attacks against the masses. The LSSP found itself at a major turning point in its history, which would be expressed in its political bearings, its internal life, and its internal relations.

But the party had a social base, and did not abandon the terrain of class struggle, leading many strikes. Then came the ‘Hartal’ of July 12, 1953 (a general strike accompanied by demonstrations and work stoppages) against colossal increases in the price of rice, also led by the LSSP and its many working-class cadre. ‘In entire regions, the conflict reached the level of a rebellion’, affirmed the LSSP Congress in 1954. It is possible that the LSSP policies were ‘empirical’ and that it could not see the possibilities this opened, but the party did remain firmly on the class terrain — the only such party to do so.

Before as after the ‘Hartal’, a pro-Stalinist offensive developed within the LSSP. This group proposed an alliance as soon as possible (‘the closest possible agreement’) with the Ceylonese CP, which — as anyone can see — exactly mimics the injunction of the International Secretariat. Thus, the IS internal bulletin published a ‘report’ from a leader regarding the situation in Ceylon, which stated: ‘Stalinist totalitarianism is not the only means of overcoming capitalism’ — not the only means, but a means nonetheless. This liquidationist offensive was completely encouraged by Pablo, and an offensive just like it was carried out against the IS’s American organization (by the Cochran faction), English organization (by the Lawrence faction), and in the French organization (by the Mestre faction).

The international Pabloist leadership, after having made a pact with the LSSP ‘dissidents’ in 1948, and under the pretext of a parliamentary majority through an alliance with the CP, organized a pro-CP liquidationist opposition in 1951-3. This rise to power of the Pabloist offensive indicates a transformation of quantity into quality, from an IS that affirms the Fourth International to an IS bent on liquidating the Fourth International.

The LSSP leadership, having subjugated itself to this faction, refused to turn to a principled international opposition and, little by little, organized its own liquidation in the same way cancer works: the contagion began from a cell and then moved throughout the patient, in this case the organization, spreading more quickly because resistance depended on that first cell, the leadership of the party. It was at this time that the discussion on the nature of the SLFP began and was distorted by the LSSP leadership.

‘In an issue of the weekly journal Sama samajist dating from early 1953, the SLFP was characterized as a "centrist party", which — although supporting capitalism — was to be supported by the LSSP in several of its proposals’.

The class characterization of this party has been long ‘forgotten’ in the August 1951 issue of Quatrième Internationale in August 1951: ‘A party of the center called the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, with a program and composition very typically reformist and liberal, made up mainly of petit bourgeois women’.

But a reformist program reformist, even very moderately, is the program of a working party!? We will give more consideration to this subject below.

In the 1956 elections that followed, the worn-out UNP lost its power to the SLFP ‘bourgeois alternative’. But there was not to be a LSSP victory in these years. A veritable ‘non-aggression pact’ was established officially between the SLFP and the LSSP, with the blessing of the International Secretariat. The LSSP ‘stood candidates in only 21 districts’, leaving the others to the SLFP, which, for a party with solid electoral practices, was a form of liquidation (the LSSP ran 41 candidates in 1952). It was a bloc with the national bourgeoisie, a basic political bloc, since it was aimed at power, and involved integrating a working-class party — in this case, a section of the Fourth International. In 1991, at the time of the World Congress of the United Secretariat, the USec leader Jaber made clear that such an orientation was perfectly justified. Referring to the 1990 popular front coalition between the CP, the SLFP, and the LSSP, Jaber stated:

‘The agreement not to stand against the coalition in the elections, similar to what was done in 1956 between the LSSP, then a section of the Fourth International, and the SLFP, is perfectly acceptable as a tactical choice’.

It was probably at that point that the LSSP made its decisive political turn, organized and supported by the Pabloists — a turn they still consider correct. The LSSP began its policy of ‘responsible cooperation’ with the government after the 1956 elections.

The IS considered the SFLP certainly to be a ‘bourgeois party, trying to be liberal. And the coalition [is] also a bourgeois coalition’ with ‘a rather radical program’. But the LSSP ‘will not fail to get the new government to face its responsibilities, supporting all progressive measures, but mercilessly denouncing all its oscillations and capitulations before the bourgeoisie and imperialism’.

Once again, a wave of strikes broke out across the country, in which the LSSP played an active role, taking on the government and bosses and confronting the policies of the Stalinists. But these strikes were used by the leadership of the party to pull together the electoral game. The order of priorities was definitely reversed: the strikes and the union activities were subordinated to the parliamentary activities and were no longer the way to raise organized class consciousness.

It is necessary to take a look at the LSSP’s international stance. Contrary to the claim of its old leaders, having (correctly) broken with the LSSP in 1964, the party in its first years did not ignore its internationalist work.

These militants played their role, whether it was helping initiate the founding of the BLPI, or taking part in the international discussion in 1941 on the characterization of the Sino-Japanese war or on the proletarian military policy of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. However, in these three examples, the party was put on the ropes — to use a term from boxing — by the international leadership:

• the journal Quatrième Internationale published the theses of the BLPI without any comment;

• the discussion the nature of the war in China was non-existent; and

• as for the proletarian military policy, it became part of the balance sheet of ten years of the International, which we know was liquidated in but a few minutes at the 2nd World Congress by the international leadership (Pablo-Mandel and the SWP).

Worse, when a discussion started within the BLPI on the extraordinary contradiction between the tasks and the forces of this very young party, founded in the spring of 1942 and bringing together only a few dozen militants clandestinely throughout the subcontinent until 1947, certain members of the BLPI considered that Trotsky’s counsel to work within the Congress Socialist Party (given in 1939 after much deliberation) was to be interpreted as an order to enter that party.

The international leadership simply looked the other way. Delegates from the Sri Lankan and Indian sections took part in the 2nd World Congress in 1948. That year, formal national independence was proclaimed. The World Congress came to no conclusion on the certainly thorny question of whether the Indian section should enter the Socialist Congress Party. More worrisome, though, the World Congress affirmed the ‘Indian section’ as if independence had not happened, and as if the Sri Lankan section did not exist and had not expressed its views on the question.

As in the case of other sections (Bolivian, English, American, etc.), it was only when Pabloism really put the screws on by creating pro-Stalinist splitter tendencies that the LSSP leadership reacted. But once that internal danger passed, it would return to its original stance.

At the end of 1953, the International Committee of the Fourth International was constituted, with the French, English, and Swiss sections, and with the support of the American SWP. One might have thought that spelled the last hours of Pabloism. But as is so well known, it was nothing of the sort. The LSSP leadership was to play an essential role in this situation.

The LSSP condemned the publication of the SWP’s ‘Open Letter to the Trotskyists of the World’, which marked the break with Pablo of the oldest and most tested of the Trotskyist organizations. In the same way, the LSSP considered holding an international congress convened by the International Committee would be ‘a catastrophe,’ which is what L. Goonewardene wrote in the name of the LSSP Central Committee on 26 January 1954 to James P. Cannon, the SWP leader. Cannon responded by rejecting the LSSP’s position that ‘formal unity of the movement is the most important consideration’. While the LSSP leadership approved unanimously on 24 April 1954 a text condemning the Pabloist documents because they were driving ‘a fundamental revision of the Trotskyist positions on Stalinism, which denies any justification for the existence of an independent Trotskyist movement’ (which is absolutely correct), the leaders also demanded a report to the Pabloist World Congress and proposed a parity commission between the International Committee and the International Secretariat to organize an international discussion.

At the least, this was quite confused. If the IS documents represented a revision of Trotskyism, what good would it be to ask for a report at the World Congress, if not to reject the International Committee?

In Ninety-Three, Victor Hugo imagines a violent dialogue between Robespierre, Marat, and Danton, a dialogue that comes to a halt upon the intrusion of a fourth protagonist. ‘This input had the effect of cold water and, like the arrival from abroad in a domestic quarrel, alleviated, if not the bottom, at least the surface’. It was exactly what the LSSP leadership wished: to give the appearance of unity at a moment of division, to ask for silence at a moment when everything must be expressed. Such an intervention could only suit Pablo. He had rejected the ‘unity’ proposals of the LSSP, and the LSSP leadership, which had voted against the Pabloist texts in April, approved their amended versions at the IS World Congress in 1954. It was a question, on both sides, of organizational maneuvers to keep the ‘field’ clean: the International for Pablo, Ceylon with the LSSP.

Thus, at the Pabloist Fifth ‘World Congress’ (1957), the report by Pierre Frank on the colonial revolution did not even make mention of Ceylon or the LSSP, whereas Pablo found it ‘desirable’ (sic) that the ‘prospects for the Ceylonese revolution find a suitable place in the forthcoming document’. As a consequence, his own report to the 20th Plenum said not a word. Contradictions? Inconsistencies? No, by then there was Castro! But before that, for the IS, the LSSP became the ‘official opposition [sic] in Parliament’. When the party wrote, on 22 December 1958, for its anniversary, that ‘the party was formed with a specific aim to achieve a workers’ and peasants’ government and, despite all the obstacles, the party will achieve its goal’, the journal Quatrième Internationale commented: ‘We understand what the LSSP has written as being an assurance greater than ever’.

Moreover, the articles in Quatrième Internationale systematically announced the ‘gains’, ‘victories’, and ‘successes’ of the LSSP. The November 1958 meeting of the International Executive Committee took place under the ‘honorary presidency of the Ceylonese, Bolivian, and French sections’, in homage, particularly with respect to the LSSP, for their role ‘in a decisive struggle’. It was an exceptional party, achieving exceptional results, that demanded respect — and, especially, silence.

We must note that the leadership of the SWP, on a regular basis, reintroduced the LSSP as a ‘mediator’ between the Pabloist IS and the International Committee ensuring the continuity of the Fourth International, with a proposal for a parity commission between the IS and the International Committee in 1954, which Cannon discussed. This proposal was made again in 1957. While the responsibility of the leaders of the IS (and the SWP) was enormous, it is obviously out of the question to deny the personal responsibility of the LSSP leaders themselves.

From 1948 on, the LSSP reduced its international activity to shadow participation in the World Congresses of the IS and applied to the SLFP the IS ‘theory’ of that party as a bourgeois nationalist liberator. As the years passed, especially after the moment the compromise with the IS had been struck, this participation continued to decrease. The LSSP’s neutrality was accompanied by a position of condescending impartiality and by the establishment of a ‘foreign department’ (a curious name, indeed), which sent official statements around the world. …

Another legend little considered in establishing a serious assessment of the LSSP is the distinction within the party’s leadership between ‘right’ and ‘center’. Not that this distinction was not made, nor that it was of no significance, but a disproportionate importance is often attached to it, and such excessive differentiation allows for a dilution of responsibilities between the ‘line’ (N.M. Perera, a real opportunist, who also became a minister from 1964 to 1975) and a quite ineffective ‘center’, which would have capitulated to this line (of Silva, same line (of Silva, ‘Tilak’, L. Goonewardene). All of them — ‘right’ and ‘center’ — belonged to the same organization before 1964 (in agreement with the IS and later the United Secretariat) and remained from 1964 on in the same organization. This distinction is used especially to free the IS from responsibility. Note, for example, that Pierre Frank described Perera in his July 1964 article in Quatrième Internationale as a figure ‘engaged in ‘systematic trade-union work’. After 1964, Frank describes multiple negative traits of Perera in his book that is one of the basic works to come out of the United Secretariat! With the repeated turns in the information on Ceylon, one can see what lies at the bottom of the Pabloist policies: no systematic activity in the working-class organizations, in particular the unions. That should be left to the apparatuses.

In the years 1959-61, a qualitative change took place: the LSSP intensified its electoralist orientation and the IS changed the form of its orientation, explaining that the ‘colonial revolution progressing towards Ceylon under a revolutionary Marxist leadership’ is now fascinated by the victory of Castro in Cuba. The hour of the ‘electoral path’ is no more.

Let us begin again: the Pabloist’s international journal in February 1959 published major excerpts from the document of the LSSP’s annual conference under the title ‘Ceylon: Towards a Government of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party’. The article was radical in tone, and seemingly had all the correct slogans. The prospect of winning governmental power may seem excessive, even ultraleft; in fact, one sentence makes it possible to understand the ‘marrow’ of the issue: ‘There is a place in an LSSP government for others that would favor the course of decisive anticapitalist measures’.

What is it, within the framework of an electoral prospect, even electoralist, would obligate negotiations and deals, and hence lead the LSSP to enter a government that ‘would favor such measures’ (relish the conditional statement)? The IS journal commented on this text in a very brief introduction, we can read the following: ‘the workers’ movement [in Sri Lanka] is led mainly by the LSSP’.

Do times change? Not yet: in the short declaration published in the January 1960 issue of the same journal, titled ‘Alongside the Ceylonese Revolution’, the word ‘parliamentary’ appeared six times, in particular in the statement that ‘the victory of the revolutionary opposition will be the result of a mobilization and an organization of the masses, at the same time on the parliamentary terrain and extra-parliamentary’ — hence, initially electoral. Pierre Frank himself held a conference in Paris on 26 February 1960 on the topic: ‘Will the Ceylonese section of the Fourth International seize power’.

Once again, elections did not result in a victory for the LSSP. The agricultural workforce turned to the SFLP. Thereafter, the LSSP leaders resolutely shifted their votes to the SFLP. This was the local translation of the IS policies: to find a more or less radical bourgeois nationalist (Castro, Ben Bella, Nasser, Sékou Touré, and others, to mention a few in the 1960s).

In April 1964, the United Secretariat explained that ‘Ceylon could become another Cuba or another Algeria’. It dropped this comparison after the LSSP entered the bourgeois government: ‘The LSSP leadership claimed that [the SFLP] acts as a petit bourgeois formation, invoking in an aberrant way the examples of Cuba and Algeria’.

The Pabloists, for the moment, kept a balance between their section and the Castroist group. It was the victory of the latter and the failure of the former that would lead the international Pabloist leadership to lose its affection for the LSSP. Vae victis!

With the electoral hopes of 1960 in Ceylon having fallen short, and with an unexpected defeat of imperialism in Cuba, the IS changed its opinion and began to criticize the LSSP, though in measured terms. As the fabulist [Rabelais—trans.] wrote: ‘They are green and good for goujats’. International Pabloism demanded a reexamination of the LSSP’s policies, which, in addition, ‘currently is carrying out a critical analysis of its own position’. But even if criticism was emphasized, as the IS declaration of 10 September 1960 underlines, it is always measured. It should be noted that the leadership of the Sri Lankan party released itself from any ties, demanding to be considered autonomous, as capable, as having assimilated ‘the entire Trotskyist program’, as ‘brilliant intellectuals’ who discuss as equals — but each on their own side — with the ‘World Party of Socialist Revolution’ (Pablo, his people, and the SWP), and as having worked out their own strategy for the transition to socialism. Pabloism had encouraged them in this direction.

The IS half-heartedly condemned several of the positions taken by the LSSP as betrayals not only of the workers’ movement but of Trotskyism, such as the vote on the Prime Minister’s speech from the throne or the vote on the budget. There is a relation here: the international Pabloist leadership and the LSSP define Trotskyism and the workers’ movement in various ways, with mention of hegemony, the rejection of the transitional method, the ultimatist conception of the united front, the inadequate grasp of Stalinism (nonexistent in the case of the LSSP and revolutionary to the Pabloists, but in either case not an obstacle). Through a mechanism that at first seems logical, but it precisely symmetrical, the rejection of Trotskyism would lead to the rejection of the independent workers’ movement. But the Pabloist leadership only condemned the ‘policies’ of the LSSP, which remained a section of the ‘Fourth International’ — as did the deputies who voted for the budget and the speech from the throne.

Moreover, N M. Perera, a leader of the LSSP’s "right wing", had the May 1960 extraordinary congress of the LSSP adopt a decision aimed simply at entering a government with the SLFP. It is true that the decision "reflects the incredible weakness of the party at a political level" and that the party leadership had failed to educate its base, but Meryl Fernando, the author of this article and a former minority leader of the LSSP, "forgets" the FI’s own responsibility in this business. With a resolution to join a bourgeois government having been adopted, the IS posed, in an internal bulletin, a "criticism [sic] of position taken by the LSSP in April at the time of the formation of a new government (even if this position could apply …)" and states:

"The International can only strongly condemn the adoption of such a course by the Ceylonese section."(69)

But it is conditional! Having made its statement about the upcoming elections, the International Secretariat doesn’t speak again on the question: for example, any mention of this problem is notably absent from the FI declaration of September 10, 1960. In 1991, at the time of the USec "World Congress", Jaber mentioned in passing "the 1960 accord that led to the governmental coalition of 1964 [and which] was a dangerous and harmful choice". But where does that choice of 1960 come from? Did it fall from the sky?

To avoid any confusion, let us recall that in 1960 there was:

• a "non-competition" electoral agreement between the LSSP and the SLFP (supported by the IS);

• a political agreement on governmental support (rejected by the IS, "such as it is assured");

• the resolution from N.M. Perera to join the government, adopted by the LSSP but not applied (rejected by the IS, and then not spoken of again).

But one cannot be separated from the others.

At the opening of the 1964 conference, one could say that all the theoretical, political, and organizational "defects" of the LSSP, nationally as well as internationally, were caused, flowed from, and were encouraged by the IS and the USec.

How would the final phase of degeneration unfold?

The general context in Ceylon was one of the growing worker strikes between 1958 and 1964, in which the working-class cadre of the LSSP and even its leaders played a significant role. This led to immense growth in the trade unions. As a consequence, there was considerable political instability, and the SFLP was unable to channel or calm the working-class demands. It needed an alliance on the left, especially so given the concurrence on the right with the UNF, the army, and those forces most closely linked to imperialism.

The Sixth "World Congress" held in 1961— and the synopsis provided in the corresponding issue of Fourth International is instructive on this subject — adopted several texts, such as the 25-page "Assessment of the Problems and Perspectives of the Colonial Revolution" (but without any discussion of the validity of a "colonial" revolution distinct from proletarian revolution) without same here discuss of validity of a revolution " colonial " distinct from revolution proletarian), with one paragraph on Ceylon where the LSSP was advised to "strengthen its Bolshevik structure" ; "On the Nature of the Cuban Revolution", four pages long; and a resolution "On the Politics of the LSSP", limited to less than a page. The priority was clear: it was not the Fourth International per se that interested the IS, but rather this was the beginning of carefully dropping as an organizational reference the LSSP, its minority that sought to occupy an independent position with the Sri Lankan workers and peasants, and eventually the Fourth International itself.

What do we find in the brief paragraphs of the resolution in question? A mere 14 — yes, 14! — lines of a declaration disapproving of the policies of the LSSP, condemning the votes on the speech from the throne and on the budget, and calling on the LSSP to declare its own trustworthiness. The essential paragraph reads:

"The Fourth International does not exclude support for the adoption of progressive measures, even by a bourgeois government or by a national petit bourgeoisie in a colonial or semi-colonial country, but the social nature, composition, and general program of the Bandaranaïke government do not justify the support it was given."

It is difficult to be more Jesuit: one can imagine support other than that which was given! Support for the measures of a bourgeois government is not excluded, but the social composition (bourgeois), social nature (bourgeois) and program (bourgeois) of the Bandaranaïke government do not justify the way in which support was given. The internal FI text of July 28, 1961, to get more detailed and practical, only expanded this resolution, adding comments that made its line even worse (as we shall see below). With it was established the idea of "partially progressive measurements and conservative or outright reactionary measures" of Mrs. Bandaranaïke.

In 1962, the LSSP conference adopted a resolution tracing the balance of the recent governments, which was rather detailed. It concluded with a slogan: "Forward for a truly socialist government", which had the advantage "of being able to encompass the appropriate content given the forces and organizations in action … It is also a slogan that can even be appropriate for a mobilization of the progressive forces within the Parliament itself."

However, only the parliamentary hypothesis regarding the mobilization of the "progressive forces" is mentioned. Hence, this was a completely electoralist resolution, published in the IS magazine, without comment. The conference had clearly affirmed: "The LSSP not only helped electorally, but also politically, to bring the SLFP government to power."

This was a basic agreement with the national bourgeoisie made in 1962 by the LSSP that was ratified by the vote of 1960 — and to which the IS gave its approval.

In the electoral arena, a parliamentary coalition, the United Left Front, was constituted with the Sri Lankan Communist Party, the MEP (the ex-Trotskyist group of Philip Gunawerdena), and the LSSP. The first of these two parties had taken part in the Bandaranaïke government. The justification was simple: it was necessary "to stop the movement to the right and to help the masses choose a left alternative." We should note in passing that this is always the Pabloist logic: "the right" against "the left" ("the true left," as Alain Krivine would say) separate from any class criteria. The constitution of this front was greeted and supported by the United Secretariat in a public declaration of 12 lines (not a single line more!); there was also an internal criticism adopted by the USec that was not published. In April 1964, the United Secretariat wrote that this front "is a means to stem the tide of the reactionary wave and to link the masses and the base of our own party, for the final realization of our perspectives. Ceylon can become another Cuba or another Algeria."

The pangs of death were rapid. As monstrous working-class demonstrations unfolded, negotiations commenced between Mrs. Bandaranaïke (who according to journalists present, literally trembled with fear in the face of the demonstrations) and N.M. Perera, the LSSP leader. An extraordinary conference of the LSSP took place on June 7, 1964, and sealed the alliance between the "right-wing" of Perera and the "center" of L. Goonewardene and C. de Silva regarding Trotskyist ministers joining the bourgeois government. The 507 (!) militants who voted for this coalition were suspended and then expelled from the United Secretariat; a revolutionary wing walked out of the Congress. It seems as if the presence in Colombo of Pierre Frank, representing the USec, nor that of Gerry Healy had any strong influence on the course of the debates at the Congress. As in any tragedy, this one had its joke: Healy and Frank had travelled on the same airplane to get to Ceylon on the spoils of the LSSP.

With no ambiguity, the declaration of the International Committee of the Fourth International of July 5, 1964, brands the LSSP as "traitors and enemies of the working class" and supports those who broke with it. Recall that the degeneration of the LSSP "unfolded under the cover of its proclaimed membership in the Fourth International." Given the state of the International Committee in 1964, it was difficult to do otherwise.

In marking the fate of the LSSP, which would have seen to have been sealed in advance, one often forgets or gives short shrift to the internal oppositions within the LSSP, which appeared with force. It is not a question of rewriting history to share in the responsibility for what the oppositions wrote, nor even more so what they became, but to record this undeniable fact: even within the LSSP itself, there was resistance to the liquidationist course and, in each case, these militants were not supported by the International Secretariat and the United Secretariat.

In his 1964 article, Pierre Frank speaks of the constitution of a left tendency "a year ago," meaning in 1963; but it totally inaccurate. A left tendency had already been constituted in 1957; the IS had nothing to do with them. This tendency specifically condemned the policy of "responsible cooperation": This offer to cooperate with a capitalist government was treacherous."

At the 7th "World Congress" (1963), a minority represented the LSSP, and its group had "dissociated itself from the centrist majority of the leadership." They were 14 of 44 members of the central committee who regularly opposed the majority policies, particularly on the United Left Front, and had organized themselves into a tendency. But the Pabloist leadership "considered [this tendency] sectarian and hardly likely to convince the rank and file to oppose the party’s political concessions." The international Pabloist leadership didn’t even publish the texts of the majority that had reached it.

Without overstating it, the minority (and beyond them, hundreds of militant members and sympathizers of the LSSP that it could influence) was sacrificed. Criticizing for his own factional reasons the attitude of the USec, a member of the United Secretariat ("Anderson") requested publication of various texts in December 1963 — that is, six months before the LSSP joined the government. The USec’s answer was published in Informations internationales and in La Vérité. Despite its length, it should be republished.

A key question in Sri Lanka is the attitude taken towards the minority Tamils. It is not my aim in this text to establish the entire history and assessment of the LSSP in this regard; for reasons of space, this significant issue — crucial in the history of Sri Lanka as in that of the LSSP — is dealt with separately here (and, it should be noted, quite briefly).

As we’ve already seen, the LSSP — over many years, both before and after independence — correctly defended the rights of the Tamil minority. Further, Sinhalese was rejected as a minority language in favor of the official language, English (the fact that only 7% of the population spoke English reflected a significant degree of the island’s independence).

A change took place in the general political context with the rise, and then the coming to power of, the SFLP, a Sinhalese nationalist party, in the 1950s. In power, the SFLP rejected English as the official language in favor of Sinhalese alone. The LSSP made clear its opposition in a 1955 "declaration." With respect to the Tamil minority (20% of the population, deprived of the right to vote), the LSSP demanded equal status for the two languages (Sri Lankan and Tamil) and stated its opposition "to communalism, that one is majority or minority." It was a clearly principled position, one that was reaffirmed (even though with debatable formulations) in 1958. The conference of the LSSP held in October 1958 restated the position — strongly and correctly — for "giving Tamil equal status as an official language with Sinhalese."

With the first communalist violence, which would lead, among other things, to the assassination of Prime Minister Bandaranaïke by an ultranationalist Buddhist monk, to an outbreak of racial rioting, and then to the banning of Tamil organizations, accompanied by violent attacks against the activities and the militants of the LSSP, the situation changed. The LSSP stayed away from the peaceful demonstrations organized by the Federal Party (a Tamil party) and modified some of its texts, particularly at the time of the 1960 elections, which ended in a landslide. The LSSP declaration of April 1961 (written by the parliamentary group and ratified by the central committee, which had long been the real centers of decision making in the party) defended the "just demands of the population for the Tamil language" and added other absolutely correct points, such as a condemnation of the state of siege. However, in another paragraph, there is a sharp refutation of the actions of the Tamil party ("which acted in a completely incorrect manner"), putting it on the same plane as the government ("incorrect policies and aberrant acts by the government").

This is very questionable, because one cannot put the nationalism of a State oppressor and that of an oppressed nation on the same plane, as Lenin explained. One can find formulations that are much more problematic coming from the LSSP parliamentary leader, N.M. Perera, from 1958 on, in connection with measures against the Tamil organizations, criticized by Perera because "these parties could have been brought before the courts for having inciting communalist violence."

However, in the 1963 trade union platform uniting the general strike (the famous "21 points"), demands were made that linked socially the two working class components of the two ethnic groups, which — we must note in passing — underlines strongly the role of the working-class united front not only in being opposed to communalism, but in guaranteeing the rights of minorities.

These years constitute the second phase of the LSSP’s history on the question of minorities: a formally correct attitude, but one with increasingly significant distortions and contradictions. We must note that these are the years of theoretical uncertainty (the nature of the national bourgeoisie), political uncertainty (the accord with the SLFP), and even uncertainty of principals (the role of the Fourth International). This was not by chance.

The watershed for this question was reached with the modification to the LSSP program at the time of the negotiations with the United Left Front. Zealously seeking an alliance with the Ceylonese national party, the LSSP changed its position on Tamil-Ceylonese equality and accepted the notion that the question was "settled" by an agreement between the Indian and Ceylonese States concerning the repatriation of the Tamils; in this sense, the word "deportation" is definitely more appropriate. This was formulated explicitly in the ULF electoral program, signed by the LSSP. The international Pabloist leadership approved of this, through for the sake of modesty/decency/shame, what could be called "vulgarity". On July 1, the United Secretariat wrote: "There is nothing wrong in the principle of negotiations between India and Ceylon on this subject."

What happened with the State-to-State negotiations on the fate of this minority? In 1964-65, 500,000 to 600,000 Tamils were forced to "return" to India thanks to an organization and to ministers who were officially "Trotskyists" just a few weeks earlier!

A balance sheet o must be made: the United Secretariat, after 1965, never uttered another word on this question, neither in Pierre Frank’s article nor in the following years. But Ernest Mandel, upon the death of Colvin de Silva in 1989, characterized the position taken as "criminal"! "Nothing wrong" in 1964, but "criminal" in 1989.

The 1960 programmatic change alone — even before the LSSP joined the Bandaranaïke government — should have provoked a firmer attitude (to be euphemistic!) from an international leadership worthy of the name. But the opposite happened. The immediate consequences were awful: "The Tamil immigrants, employed on the plantations, partially rejected, completely excluded from political life, [were] abandoned even by the trade unions obedient to the Communists or Trotskyists that had once attempted to organize them."

How can one speak of "the tragedy of the Tamil people" in revisiting the communalist riots that began in 1958 without mentioning the anti-communalist activity and the defense of Tamil rights by the LSSP, and then its role in 1964? It is no accident that the Pabloist magazine Inprecor offers no perspective; it ends with this: "Increasingly, large numbers of people are condemned to an existence resembling that of the Somalians, especially since the recent reductions in already meager allotments for refugees", not to mention the "free zones". The dislocation of the Sri Lankan State to benefit imperialism precedes the development of these free zones and, at the same time, the division of the island with "ethnic" borders.

After 1964, the policies of the LSSP openly became those of a reformist party. The party returned to power in 1970, took part completely in the military repression against the guerrilla peasants of the JVP (Popular Liberation Front) that began in 1971, for example, and was in the government until 1975. The governmental coalition broke apart in 1975 over the question of compensation for foreign companies (rejected by the LSSP) — a position that, while anti-imperialist, was not, in and of itself, a measure directed at workers’ independence.

The LSSP (Revolutionary), formed by the opposition in 1964, exploded after its break with the LSSP and the return of a right-wing government in the 1965 elections. Some members returned to the "Samasamajist" fold’ a small group joined Gerry Healy’s tendency; and the rest of the organization, linked to the United Secretariat, is still divided into two. The lack of discussion on an assessment of the LSSP and the absence of international prospects largely explain this isolation and then this fragmentation.

What were the actions of the governments of Mrs. Bandaranaïke in 1960-64 and those of 1970? Here we must bring in the assessment of V. Nanayakkara, the current leader of the USec section, the NSSP, which was formed from a split in the LSSP in 1977 and affiliated with the United Secretariat in 1992: "Between the 1950s and the beginning of the 1970s, under populist governments, several industrial enterprises, such as in steel and textiles, developed under the impetus of the government or with its cooperation. That allowed for harmonious economic growth."

Let’s examine this curious "harmony": the violation of elementary democratic freedoms; the eviction of 500,000 workers, peasants, and Tamil youth in 1964; repression of the JVP guerrillas in 1971. "Harmonious growth" of the economy should not be possible separate from the democratic issues, which itself raises a curious question: how is the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of producers compatible with "harmonious growth"? But let’s look only at the "economic" question:

"The return to liberalism in 1965, undertaken by the National Party, was an appeal for foreign capital and notably to the World Bank for development. The left parties [when they] returned to power could hardly escape the constraints or the seductions of the financial aid."

That’s something far different than "harmony", and raises two questions. The first relates to the characterization of SFLP. In the International Secretariat resolution of 1961 (not published in the IS reviews), it was "a party with a large mass base, especially among the petit bourgeoisie and the peasants, which has some reformist pretensions and can be identified with the UNP, which has undergone some changes especially since the death of its leader, Bandaranaike, but which nevertheless continues to advance a program that does not break the framework of the existing regime and in the final analysis acts in the interest of safeguarding capitalism."

This long definition can apply to dozens of parties: the Moroccan Istiqlal, the Radical Party in France prior to 1958, the right-wing Italian Socialists of the 1960s, and so on. It "omits" answering one question: is the class criterion of this party that of the workers or the bourgeoisie? Is it about an "inter-class" party, as Stalin defined the Kuomintang? Discussing with the LSSP leaders, the IS wrote:

"A tactic of general critical support applies when it is estimated that a government will apply an entire progressive program and that our support will have to be granted to this full program. Does the International exclude, in theory, such an attitude? Absolutely not. For example, one could characterize as being of this nature the support given by the International to the government of Fidel Castro — even before we characterized Cuba as a workers’ state."

This long quotation affords an understanding of the Pabloist politics. The SLFP is a bourgeois nationalist party, in an oppressed country (like the Tunisian Destour, the Syrian Ba’ath, Peronism in Argentina, and so on), not even radicalized. In the situation that began to unfold in 1983-1984, which the Fourth International called "recolonization", this "nationalism" became the relay — or more precisely the club — of imperialism against the people.

The second question concerns the attitude of the Fourth International. Marxists have always distinguished the anti-imperialist struggle from necessary political and organizational independence. This has been the case since Engels wrote the following to Bernstein on August 9, 1882: "I think that we can well be on the side of the oppressed fellahs without sharing the illusions they nurture at the time … and to be against the English brutalities while by no means siding with their military adversaries of the moment." And it has been so since Trotsky wrote the following in connection with the nationalization of oil in Mexico: "Without giving up its own identity, every honest working class organization of the entire world, and first of all in Great Britain, is duty bound to take an irreconcilable position against the imperialist robbers, their diplomacy, their press and their fascist hirelings."

The most recent decisions of the Fourth International fall completely within this continuity: a real struggle against imperialism and the necessary independence of the International. The view is found in the text of the Reproclamation Congress and in the resolutions of the Fourth World Congress. It is obvious that within the extremely limited framework of this text, one can only mention these political elements without being able to develop them more fully.

Was a balance sheet of the LSSP established? We’ll pass over those who are tainted by their departure (Healy, Samarakoddy, and the Spartacists). Also, let’s pass over the post-mortem revelations: "This weakness was well-known by leaders of the Trotskyist movement on an international scale." And we’ll pass over the last-minute conditionals: "The vigorous continuation of such a course … would have offered," and "it could even …"

One can standardize some problems, which are in no case limited. There are the questions of trade unions in Sri Lanka, of the free zones, and of privatization; the Tamil question (or, more precisely, the question of the unity of the Sri Lankan state), which implies the halting of all war and repression with guarantees for the minority of the rights; the question of war and the relationship with the whole of the Indian subcontinent has for ten years been a crucial question, but it is not one we can address given the limitations and objective of this text.

• The 1964 treachery is not the paroxysm of the crisis nor a halt to it: there is a coherence in the politics of the LSSP, of the International Secretariat and the United Secretariat, and its continuers. This coherence is seen, for example, in the 1991 affirmation of the USec leader Jaber ensuring the continuity between the 1956 electoral accord and the politics of the NSSP, or by the policy of the NSSP in the 1990 elections. The politics with respect to the national bourgeoisie, and more particularly of the SLFP, is an essential element.

• The LSSP no different in the beginning than any of the groups of petit bourgeois radicalized nationalist students who gravitated towards the Fourth International? Why not? But which discussion was followed from that point? What role did the international leadership play in this discussion, or was it absent? Many Trotskyists were won over with the theory of permanent revolution and its organizations conclusions, starting from their revolutionary nationalist practice. As the OCRFI wrote during the break with the Argentinian group Politica Obrera, which like the LSSP came out of revolutionary nationalism (an analogy that stops there):

"There is no original sin that sticks to the building of the revolutionary party of the Fourth International." That’s a profound assertion in 1979, in 1964, in 1935, and even more so in 2000-2001, with regard to the crisis of the workers’ movement.

• Another element of the balance sheet is the absence of discussion and international democracy in the LSSP. Obviously, this was a continuing problem in the organizations that came out of the LSSP. The USec leader Jaber even speaks of a "heritage" on this subject! The ousting of the Stalinists in 1940 was seen as a "coup", a "fait accompli" accomplished by the majority of the leadership without intervention from the ranks. The BSP-LSSP fusion proclaimed in 1950 also took place without discussion, just as did the first attempt at reunification in 1946. In the same way, the factional fight of 1952-53 against the Stalinist-Pabloist tendency did not contribute to the education of party members. Pierre Frank provides significant elements about the internal life of the LSSP: "its congresses were actually general assemblies in which eloquent oratory often outweighed sound political argument." Ernest Mandel spoke about a "left social-democratic party," but they all make these comments after the fact. For this reason, one finds figures about enormous congresses, but completely deprived of any significance, such as "a thousand delegates" to the 1957 congress or these "507 delegates [who] vote on the entry into the government" in 1964. And what should we think of the "200 delegates of the NSSP representing 3,000 voting members in 1991 — with one abstention — for affiliation" with the United Secretariat? What did the International Secretariat say before 1964 about this problem? Pablo had this formidable formulation at the time of the Third World Congress:

"Our Sinhalese organization will have to strengthen its structure, raise the theoretical and political level of its militants, to be more integrated into the ideological life of the International."

What is valid for all sections at all times would have required development in the specific case of the LSSP. In 1961, at the "World Congress," the "colonial" resolution demanded that the LSSP "strengthen its Bolshevik structure", which implies that such a structure existed but could be improved. The truth before 1964, and lies afterwards.

Where is the serious balance sheet?

What is the first lesson one can draw from a quick reading of the texts?: to draw the balance and discuss the LSSP, the LSSP (R), the NSSP, etc., presumes a discussion of what makes an International, and of the Fourth International (theory, practice, and organization), both its past and its present; and it presupposes a discussion within and with an organized framework. One cannot discuss Sri Lanka without discussing the balance sheet of the Fourth International, the links between the degeneration of the LSSP and the existence of a liquidationist center.

By publicly putting on the agenda of its next world congress the balance sheet of the International, the Fourth International assumes its responsibilities. An organizing center has in its authority the power to open an organized discussion (it is not a tautology). To begin a discussion implies that nobody wishes that its conclusions be determined in advance.

This text, of necessity incomplete and limited, aims at being a first contribution to a discussion that is sorely needed.

— JAM’S.

Note: The Ceylonese Delegation to the Third World Congress (1951)

It is necessary to write a few words about the composition of the Ceylonese delegation to the Third World Congress. It’s a composition that is difficult to disentangle, but we shall see that that has a certain political importance.

The first delegate was Leslie Simon Goonewardene, alias "Tilak". But it is with the second that things become complicated.

Two leaders bear the same name. One is Robert Gunawardena, the younger, founder of the LSSP and a member of the "T Group," leading the "dissident" section; he played an active role in the fusion of the Trotskyist groups in 1950, then in the left-wing of the LSSP in 1960 (RH, p. 181, note 4), before briefly joining the party led by his brother and finally becoming Ceylon’s ambassador to China in 1965 (RH, p. 203, note 77). His name in the party (at least during the war) was "Vaiday" or "Prakash" (RH, p. 220, note 5; and CLT No. 61, p. 7, note 3). He was leading the LSSP in 1951.

The older brother, a founder and a long-time principal inspiration behind the LSSP, was called Don Philip Rupasinghe (sometimes spelled Hupasinghe) Gunawardena (1901-72). He was a member of the "T Group," founded the "dissident" section in Ceylon in 1945, and rejected the unity of the two groups in 1950 (RH, p. 10, note 12). Thus, he had broken with the Fourth International in 1951; he was closely linked to the Stalinists, and, from 1953 on, he characterized Trotskyism as a "dead ideology" (cited in RH, p. 112, note 37; and CLT No. 61, p. 80, note 2). It appears that the long patronym was his real name. "Philip Gunawardena" is not a pseudonym. When CLT (No. 21, p. 24, note 40) presents him as "Don Philip Hupasinghe, known as Philip Gunawardena" it must be a mistake. Sometimes he signs his whole name, "D.P.R. Gunawardena", as in the example cited by Ch.W. Erwin, "Trotskyism in India," Revolutionary History No. 4 (Spring 1988-89), p. 33, note 83. Philip Gunawardena also uses another shortened part of his pseudonym as a pen name: Rup Singh (examples cited by Erwin, pp. 33-4, notes 85 and 112; or RH, p. 84 and p. 91). The text "The Struggle of August 1942", published by the CLT No. 21, pp. 91-5, signed "Rup Singh", is Ph. Gunawardena. He also used the pseudonym "Guruswami" (RH, p. 220, note 5; CLT No. 61, p. 7, note 2). In 1951, he was not a member of the Fourth International.

Complicated? Yes. Of no interest? You judge.

Volume 4 of the collection The Congresses of the Fourth International (1950-52) provides the following information: the two Ceylonese delegates "Leslie" or "Tilak" are either Leslie S. Simon Goonawardene and "Robert" or "Philippe", or "Don Ph. Hupasinghe" (p. 129). He is quoted as "Hupasinghe" in the commission on mandates, the Far East commission, and the finances commission (p. 123) and as "Robert (Ceylon)" on pages 125 and 126. The index is more random: on pages 506 and 507, he is written as "Gunawardene, Philip, see Hupasinghe", "Hupasinghe Don Philip, known as Philip Gunawardene", and finally, "Robert, see Hupsasinghe" (note the error "Gunawardene" and the other error, probably typographical, of "Hupsasinghe"). Who is the second delegate? Is it Robert Gunawardena, Trotskyist leader, or as R. Prager indicates, his brother Philip Gunawardena, splitter?

RH writes: "He [Philip Gunawardena] appears to have attended the Third World Congress" and sat on the Far East commission (p. 136). If that is the case, if R. Prager and Revolutionary History are not mistaken (and their points are serious), Pablo and his minions had seated and voting (with deliberative voice) at the Third World Congress of the Fourth International the representative of an organization that had rejected the Fourth International.


A letter to La Verité from Charles Wesley Ervin

La Verité

87, rue du Fabourg-Saint-Denis

75010 Paris

France

May 6, 2009

Dear friends,

I recently read your balance sheet on Trotskyism in Sri Lanka, dated December 16, 2008, reprinted in Socialist Organizer. Overall, I agree with your analysis. In this letter I wish to offer a few factual corrections.

First, the article states that when the Indian section of the FI (the BLPI) decided to enter the Socialist Party in 1948, “The International leadership simply looked the other way.” That is false. In fact, the International Secretariat expressed strong misgivings over the entry proposal. In 1948 the IS instructed the BLPI to postpone the entry decision until a proper discussion could be carried out under the leadership of the FI. (See C.W. Ervin, Tomorrow is Ours: The Trotskyist Movement in India and Ceylon 1935-48, Colombo, 2006.) Unfortunately, the BLPI leaders rejected this good advice and hastily went ahead with the entry. Sadly, the BLPI liquidated itself, just as the British section did a year later, through an inappropriate use of the entry tactic. The IS can not be blamed for that.

However, as your article states, within a few years Pablo himself became the prophet of entryism. In the 1950s the IS urged the Indian Trotskyists to build a “centrist” Workers-Peasants Party (Mazdoor Kisan Party), rather than rebuild a “sectarian” pure Trotskyist party. When that experiment flopped, the Indian Trotskyists launched their own party in 1957. The IS, however, backed a liquidationist faction in that party, and in 1960 the Indian Trotskyists merged with a centrist party, the Revolutionary Communist Party, with the blessings of the Pabloites. That too was a disaster. The Trotskyists were forced to split two years later when the RCP majority backed India in the border war with China. Then, after the Sino-Soviet split in 1964, Pablo urged the Indian Trotskyists to enter the pro-Peking Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Stalinists cleverly accepted only the trade unionists. As a result, the Trotskyist movement lost its historic mass base in the coal fields of West Bengal.

Second, regarding the Third World Congress of the FI (1951), you are right to question the report on the delegation from Ceylon. Robert Gunawardena and Leslie Goonewardene did in fact represent the LSSP. However, contrary to the garbled account in the official proceedings, Philip Gunawardena surely did not.

I suspect that whoever wrote the report was confused by the Sinhalese names. Goonewardene and Gunawardena are different Anglicized spellings for the same name (Gunavardhana in Sinhala). Robert was the younger brother of Philip Gunawardena. To make matters more confusing, “Robert” was his nickname. His full name was Don Benjamin Rupasinghe Gunawardena. Rupasinghe is their clan name; “Hupasinghe” is nonsensical.

Politically, Philip wanted nothing to do with the Fourth International at that point. He had split from the LSSP in 1950, formed a rival party, and oriented towards the Stalinist camp. In 1952 he attended the pro-Moscow Congrès des Peuples pour la Paix in Vienna and the Asian Pacific Peace Congress in Peking. Returning from his tours, he publicly pronounced Trotskyism to be a “dead ideology.” However, it should be noted that on certain key issues, Philip took very Pabloite positions: e.g., he held that Stalinism could play a revolutionary role and adopted the theory that the USSR was a “regenerating workers state.”

Sincerely yours,

Charles Wesley Ervin

cc: Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches sur les Mouvements Trotskyste et Révolutionnaires Internationaux

 

Setting the record straight

 

Charles Wesley Ervin July 31, 2015 

 

In 2013 the International Communist League (ICL) published a long article in Spartacist to explain their decision, announced a year earlier, to repudiate a key transitional demand in the founding program of the Fourth International – the call for a popularly elected Constituent Assembly (CA) in Third World countries where the masses are fighting to topple autocratic regimes. 1 The ICL has decided that the slogan for a CA is not a transitional demand but “a call for a new capitalist government” and “cannot be a bridge to proletarian state power, but only to disaster and defeat.” 

 

How does the ICL justify this assault on Trotsky? They say that in 2011 certain “leading comrades” of the ICL, having “distilled” the experience of the last two centuries of revolutions, concluded that Trotsky failed to realize that he was foisting a counter-revolutionary demand on his followers. Mind you, one year earlier these same “leading comrades” disgraced the ICL by defending the US military occupation of Haiti. Such is their superior “distillation” of Marxism. 

 

The Spartacist article selectively cites historical examples to show that the CA slogan can result only in negative outcomes. But in the end the ICL can’t explain how the Bolsheviks made the only successful revolution in history using a counter-revolutionary demand as a key tactic! Nor do they offer an alternative transitional demand to fill the role that Lenin and Trotsky assigned to the CA slogan. The ICL doesn’t prove that the CA equals “a call for a capitalist government.” They just assert it as an axiom that doesn’t need proof. What the ICL has “distilled” is not a purified Trotskyism but another abstract rationale for abandoning the Transitional Program and abstaining from struggle.

The case of the Indian Trotskyists 

 

Despite a lot of digging in the archives of Trotskyism, the ICL has found only one case where Trotskyists waged a “clear-cut factional struggle” over the CA – the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI), the Indian section of the Fourth International from 1942 to 1948. The ICL claims that there were “deep divisions within the BLPI” from the very start and “a significant layer of the organization consistently opposed” the demand. Finally, in 1947, “the left-right division within the Indian section that began in 1940-42 came to a head” and the party

was “racked by a deepgoing factional dispute.” According to the ICL, the minority that opposed the CA on principle represented this left wing. The ICL concludes that their arguments “have stood the test of time.” 

 

In my book on Indian Trotskyism, published in 2006, I documented this debate in the BLPI. 2 In this article I will revisit the question of the CA more broadly and in greater detail. I will show that the narrative of the ICL is more fiction than fact. The program of the BLPI was adopted unanimously in 1941 and then ratified at the party’s first conference in 1944 with no opposition to the formulation of the CA. There is no evidence that anyone, much less a “significant layer,” opposed the demand before 1947. The question arose only when the British, contrary to what the BLPI had predicted all along, set up a quisling “Constituent Assembly” in Delhi. In response the BLPI raised the slogan for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly (RCA). That triggered the debate at the BLPI’s conference in May 1947.

While the issue was important, the debate was too little, too late. At that point the main threat to a revolution was reactionary communal civil war, not the half-empty Constituent Assembly in Delhi, which had done nothing in seven months except vote on a national flag. The anti-CA minority that the ICL lionizes was hardly a “left opposition.” In 1948 they proposed that the BLPI merge with a centrist party (which was calling for Soviets and a “Peoples’ Constituent Assembly”). Their appetite for centrism soon found expression in Pabloist liquidationism. Starting in 1952, they called for a grand centrist regroupment, opposed the formation of a new Trotskyist party, and engineered an unprincipled merger with the same centrist party that they wanted to enter in 1948. In 1964 they made a suicidal attempt to enter the CP(M). Sadly, the bright young Trotskyists who in 1947 opposed the RCA in the name of defending the Permanent Revolution ended up cheering the Maoist Naxalites, who called for two-stage revolution and vilified Trotsky.

 

The Indian Trotskyists and the Constituent Assembly demand Page 2 of 14 

 

The origin of the Constituent Assembly demand in India 

 

In Czarist Russia liberal reformers as well as the populists who took to terrorism started agitating for a Constituent Assembly in the nineteenth century. In India, however, the demand had a belated birth. The progressive Hindu Anglophiles who formed Congress in 1885 were content to merely supplicate the British for incremental constitutional reforms that hopefully, someday, would lead to parliamentary government on the British model. 

 

The Muslim elite, on the other hand, viewed democracy more as a threat than a goal. Referring to the fact that Muslims were only 20 percent of the population, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan likened parliamentary government to “a game of dice, in which one man had four dice and the other only one.” 3 In 1906 he played a key role in forming the All-India Muslim League to protect the interests of upper-class Muslims and counter the growing influence of the Congress. The League convinced the British to introduce communal electorates and weighted representation that gave Muslims a disproportionate role in the legislative councils and local governing boards. 

 

 

From that point on the separate electorates became a bone of contention between the Congress and the League. In 1916 they reached a compromise: Congress accepted the separate electorates and the League adopted the nationalist demand for swaraj [self-rule]. That pact lasted only six years. The rupture was followed by a period of communal violence. That became the pattern that was repeated again and again. The Congress, based as it was on a small industrial-financial capitalist class and a large body of landlords, was unable to unite the masses of India against the British overlord. In that regard they didn’t measure up to even the Russian Cadets, much less the radical French Jacobins.

In 1925 the Secretary of State for India and Burma, Lord Birkenhead, told Parliament that the Indians were incapable of writing a Constitution that they all could agree on. That infuriated the nationalists. Motilal Nehru, a leader of the Swaraj Party, convened a caricature of a constituent assembly in Delhi (an “all-parties conference”) to draft the blueprint for a democratic constitution. Much to the glee of British reactionaries, the Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh representatives bickered from the start. Muhammed Ali Jouhar, a veteran of the freedom struggle, bitterly commented to the British, “It is the old maxim of ‘divide and rule’. But there is a division of labor here. We divide and you rule.”4

 

In 1933 a Joint Parliamentary Committee in London stated that granting "constituent power” to authorities in India wasn’t “a practicable proposition." That prompted the Congress Working Committee to finally take the leap. 

 

“the only satisfactory alternative is a constitution drawn up by a Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of adult suffrage or as near it as possible...with the power to important minorities to have their representatives elected exclusively by the electors belonging to such minorities.” 5 

 

Thus, from the start the Congress compromised on the principles of universal suffrage and democratic representation. Moreover, they didn’t specify how such an assembly would be convened – only that it had to be non-violent. Jawaharlal Nehru, the disciple of Gandhi and darling of the British Fabians, insisted, “There is no other way short of revolution which can bring the needed result.”6 

 

The Congress demand and the growth of communal conflict 

 

In 1937 the British government held direct elections to the provincial legislative assemblies on a narrow franchise. The Congress campaigned on the twin slogans of independence and a Constituent Assembly. They won a sweeping victory, forming ministries in six provinces. Having got its first taste of power, Congress proved to be just as dictatorial as the British. They invoked repressive British labor laws, shot striking workers, and rode roughshod over the Muslim League. 

 

As communal tensions rose, bloody riots erupted in cities across northern India. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the secular leader of the Muslim League, played upon the legitimate anxieties of the Muslim masses: “The High Command of the Congress is determined, absolutely determined to crush all other communities and cultures in this country and establish Hindu Raj in the country.” Even Nehru privately worried that the Congress was encouraging Hindu

 

The Indian Trotskyists and the Constituent Assembly demand Page 3 of 14

 

 

 

 communalism in the name of progressive democratic reform: “I fear we are rapidly heading for what might be called civil war in the real sense of the word.”7

In March, 1940 the League adopted the famous Pakistan resolution, which stated that “Hindus and Muslims brought together under a democratic system forced upon the minorities can only mean Hindu Raj.”8  One month later the new Secretary of State for India warned the House of Lords that any concession to the Congress demand for a Constituent Assembly might ignite “a minority revolt leading to civil war in India.” 9  To underscore the danger, he added that “a minority of some 80,000,000 people is a very real thing, especially when religious passions are engaged.”

 

The pioneer Trotskyists on the question of the CA

 

 During this period Trotskyist groups sprouted in several cities in India, popping up independently of each other. The leaders came from very different backgrounds. None had any direct connection to the International Left Opposition. Given their isolation, it’s not surprising that they took different positions on the question of the CA.

 

The first Trotskyist group was formed in 1937 in Allahabad (United Provinces). The leader had learned his Marxism in the Communist Party of India (CPI) during the ultra-left period, when the CA demand was derided as “a slogan to deceive and delude the masses.” 10  In 1936 he left the CPI in protest against the new Popular Front line, which included support for the Congress slogan of the CA. He recognized that a strictly bourgeois-reformist CA would tend to exacerbate , rather than resolve the communal conflicts:

 

“[the Congress demand] means communal compromise of any kind for the sake of the independence struggle as it is being conducted under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. It means that India’s freedom fight probably will not be able to overcome the power of communalism .” 11  [my emphasis]

 

However, still carrying some ultra-left baggage, he threw the baby out with the bathwater: “We vigorously oppose the slogan of Constituent Assembly.”

 

A year later a Trotskyist group surfaced in Bombay. They argued that a CA was just a Congress pipe dream.

 

“Can anyone but a fool or a conscious deceiver tell the masses that the Indian capitalists would seriously contemplate swamping the voting booths with workers and hungry peasants and unemployed? It is unbelievable! Further it requires a revolution and the expulsion of the British army before such a Constituent Assembly could be called, and the bourgeoisie will long before that be inside the camp of the self-same imperialists, begging them to save private property and law and order. Only if the masses are organized in Soviets can a revolution be successful, in which case why should we call the constituent at all?” 12

 

Shortly thereafter, they got a copy of the Transitional Program , and that changed their mind. They added the demand for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly to their program.

 

In 1939 a third Trotskyist group was established in Ahmedabad. The founders had come out of the Communist League, a centrist party led by the maverick communist Saumyendranath Tagore. Though not a Trotskyist himself, he used Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism to criticize the CPI. Tagore wrote a treatise on the CA, drawing mainly from Lenin’s Two Tactics . He attacked the CPI for waffling on the key question of who would convene the assembly:

 

“The constituent assembly can never be convened so long as British imperialism is in India. It can only be convened and must be convened only after the seizure of power, after the final smash-up of imperialism.”13

 

 When the Trotskyists came out of the Communist League, they published a manifesto that included the CA demand.14

 

The Indian Trotskyists and the Constituent Assembly demand Page 4 of 14 

 

The Trotskyists in Calcutta emerged from a totally different milieu. The founders were brainy intellectuals from the elite colleges of Calcutta who were attracted to Trotskyism on a purely intellectual level. Unlike the other groups, they had a connection with a British Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Socialist League, which provided them with guidance and literature from the Fourth International, which was launched in September 1938. They adopted the Transitional Program as their founding document. 

 

Drafting the BLPI program – facts versus fiction 

 

During 1939-40 the four Indian groups started working towards unity. The Ceylonese Trotskyists in the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) played a critical role in facilitating this process. The LSSP had already concluded that a socialist revolution in insular, conservative Ceylon could succeed only as part of the larger revolution in India. The LSSP dispatched cadres to establish relations with the Indian Trotskyists. 

In March 1941 the leaders of the Calcutta and Allahabad groups went to Ceylon for a clandestine meeting with leaders of the LSSP, which was now forced to operate underground. At this meeting it was decided to form a united Indo-Ceylonese party in solidarity with the FI. The participants outlined the program in five sections. 15 The program was drafted and circulated to all the groups for discussion. In November 1941 a follow-up meeting was convened in Calcutta to discuss the draft. No minutes or documents from this meeting or the previous meeting in March have survived. 

 

 

The ICL states that while the program was being drafted there already was a factional struggle going on: 

 

“The left wing around [the new Ceylonese leader] Doric de Souza was then dominant over [LSSP founder] Philip Gunawardena’s rightist minority, while the party’s general secretary, Leslie Goonewardene, played a mediating role. The Draft Programme was written by de Souza and Leslie Goonewardene while Philip Gunawardena was imprisoned by the British in Ceylon.” 

 

Nonsense. In 1941 there were no factions in the LSSP. 16 While Doric de Souza and Leslie Goonewardene certainly had a hand in developing the program, it was a collective effort, involving the Indian groups and all the senior LSSP leaders, including Philip Gunawardena and the others who were in jail at that point. The factionalism in Ceylon developed later, after the jail break of the party leaders in April 1942, and had nothing to do with the new program.17 We have conclusive evidence that there were no principled differences over the program. In May 1942, when the BLPI was established, the draft program was adopted unanimously. Even the leader of the Allahabad group, who had originally “vigorously opposed” the CA demand, accepted the program.18 One month later the new Provisional Central Committee reported to the International Secretariat that “theoretical agreement was reached on all fundamental issues.” 19 

 

A ground-breaking Marxist analysis of India

At the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, Lenin distilled the Bolshevik experience with the CA: 

 

“We were obliged to convene the Constituent Assembly even after the victory of the proletariat, so as to prove to the backward proletarians that they had nothing to gain from that Assembly. To bring home the difference between the two, we had to concretely counterpose the Soviets and the Constituent Assembly and to show the Soviets as the only solution… In this way the conflict between Soviet and bourgeois government became quite clear, not only to us, the vanguard of the working class, but also to the vast majority of the peasantry, to the petty office employees, the petty bourgeoisie, etc….The history of the Russian revolution has clearly shown that the masses of the working class, the peasantry, and petty office employees could not have been convinced by any arguments, unless their own experience had convinced them.” 20

 

The Indian Trotskyists and the Constituent Assembly demand Page 5 of 14 

 

The Marxist intellectuals who drafted the BLPI program thought that the Indian revolution might bypass the necessity for a CA. Like Czarist Russia, India was a predominantly agrarian country where an autocratic government ruled over a vast subject population teeming with class, ethnic, religious, linguistic, and national divisions. The BLPI program concluded that the theory of Permanent Revolution was fully applicable to British India as well as the more than 500 Princely States that were embedded. But Indian society had unique features that would affect how the revolution might progress. 

 

First, Indian society was deeply rooted in an ancient and rigid hierarchical caste system that had no parallel in Russia or anywhere in Europe. In British India alone there were more than 60 million “untouchables” who had nothing to lose but their chains. Second, in India there was no party representing the peasantry as a whole, comparable to the Socialist Revolutionaries in Czarist Russia. Without that obstacle, the class polarization among the peasantry would likely develop more quickly.

Third, the economic crisis in the Indian countryside was even more acute than it had been in Russia.

“The creation of a vast army of landless peasants, share-croppers and wage-laborers on the land has immensely complicated the agrarian problem, and rendered necessary revolutionary measures of the most far-reaching character…the landlord-peasant antagonism has been given a sharper emphasis by the extension of parasitic claims on the land, and the overthrow of landlordism by the transference of the land to the cultivator remains the primary task of the agrarian revolution. Nevertheless, this basic antagonism has been supplemented by a new one, which is reflected in the growth of an agricultural proletariat in the strict sense of the word. Besides this, the invasion of finance capital has made the problems of mortgage and of rural debt more pressing in some parts of India than in others, and these facts taken together will probably give to the agrarian revolution, at least in some areas, an anti-capitalist character at a very early stage Thus, though the Indian revolution will be bourgeois in its immediate aims, the tasks of the proletarian revolution will be posed from the outset.”21 (my emphasis) 

 

 

 

If that prediction proved true, then the bourgeoisie would surely seek refuge in the protective arms of the British imperialists, rather than try to re-play the role of the Cadets or even the Mensheviks. Thus the program concluded: 

 

“This slogan, conceiving of an intermediate democratic stage in the Indian revolution, when a democratically elected parliament will have the power, is illusive and deceptive. It is destined in the later phases of the revolution to be utilized by the bourgeoisie and its agents as a slogan in opposition to and for the sabotaging of the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship in the Soviet form. Hence the Bolshevik Leninist Party cannot under any circumstances give it unqualified support. 

 

The tactic of Critical Support 

 

Though the program didn’t advocate the CA as a fighting transitional demand for India, the BLPI leaders recognized that situations could arise where the call for a CA might be taken up by the masses in their struggle against imperialism or where it might be posed as a “referendum” on imperialist rule. In such cases the demand for a CA could assume a transitional character: 

 

“However, the slogan of Constituent Assembly, advanced as a fighting slogan to overthrow imperialism, is capable of assuming a progressive character in the early stages of the revolutionary struggle. In such circumstances, the Bolshevik Leninist Party will lend its critical support to the slogan, not as one capable of objective fulfillment even for a successful revolution, but as a rallying cry in the specific stage of the struggle. At the same time the Bolshevik Leninist Party must advance and popularize its own slogan of Soviets.”22 

 

One such situation had already arisen during the period of the provincial Congress governments (1937-39). The Congress raised resolutions in the assemblies calling for a CA. Their speeches generated considerable popular enthusiasm. If any of the Trotskyist groups had representatives in these assemblies, what position would they take on these resolutions? They would have no choice but to give them their critical support. If they had the ICL line, they would have to vote against these resolutions – since they were a “call for a new capitalist government.” That would put them in the same camp as Winston Churchill, the Native princes, and the reactionary Hindu Mahasabha. The Spartacist article studiously avoids drawing out the tactical implications of their new line.

 

 

The Indian Trotskyists and the Constituent Assembly demand Page 6 of 14 

 

In short the BLPI regarded the call for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly (RCA) as a tactic that the party may advance, or withdraw, at any particular moment in the struggle for power, depending on whether or not it could be used to expose the misleaders and help the masses shed their illusions and communal consciousness. 

 

A confirmation of the prediction 

 

In 1942 the British coalition government dispatched the hapless Sir Stafford Cripps to India with the mandate to secure full Indian cooperation with their war effort. He offered a deal: support us now in the war, and we’ll give you “full-self government” when we win. Both the Congress and the Muslim League politely told him to shove his proposal. Churchill responded in kind, declaring that there would be no more offers to the “beastly Indians.” Gandhi threatened to launch “mass civil disobedience.” At its historic open-air mass meeting in Bombay in August 1942 the Congress leaders passed the “Quit India” resolution. The British arrested the entire Congress high command before dawn the next day. 

 

The next morning angry crowds surged through the streets of Bombay, violently lashing out at anything British. Within days the revolt spread far and wide, not only to the major cities and provincial towns but also deep into the countryside. With the Congress leaders in jail, the masses broke loose from the straightjacket of non-violence. 

 

In Bombay the BLPI, formed only three months earlier, distributed leaflets that called for a “mass general political strike against British imperialism” and the immediate formation of peasant committees to fight for the abolition of landlordism without compensation, cancellation of peasant debt, and other transitional demands. 

 

The Quit India revolt seemed to confirm that the BLPI prognosis was correct. Although the CPI and the Royists were able to keep many of the urban workers on the job and away from the nationalist demonstrations, millions of peasants all over India refused to pay rent, demanded debt relief, looted graneries, and in some areas drove out the police and formed their own panchayats (local governing committees). 

In 1992 the ICL published a retrospective article on the Quit India struggle in which they hailed the “exemplary work, programmatic soundness and significant local successes” of the BLPI.23 Quite true. The BLPI leader who directed that work, wrote many of the leaflets, and then drew the lessons of the revolt was Philip Gunawardena - the man whom the ICL now loves to hate as the Doctor Evil of the BLPI.

 

 

The fiction of “consistent opposition” to the CA demand 

 

The ICL states that a “significant layer” of the party “consistently opposed” the CA slogan. That is another ICL fabrication. 

In 1942 the International Secretariat of the Fourth International published a manifesto in solidarity with the Quit India revolt. The manifesto advanced the demands of the Transitional Program, including the call for a CA. The BLPI reprinted the manifesto in the party journal, Permanent Revolution, which was produced by the Calcutta branch of the party. In an introduction the editors stated, “without the revolutionary social program outlined in this thoroughly Marxist document, any talk of victory over British imperialism is either sheer deception or pure nonsense.” 24 I would add that the editors of Permanent Revolution subsequently formed the core of the minority faction that the ICL rhapsodizes. 

In 1944 the BLPI was finally able to convene its first national conference. One of the items on the agenda was ratification of the party program. Doric de Souza – the hero of the ICL - chaired the session. He pointed out that some of the statistics in the original draft of 1941 needed to be updated. But neither he nor anyone else at the conference raised the issue of the CA. The program was duly ratified. 25 

In 1945 the BLPI convened a Regional Conference in Calcutta. The main point on the agenda was to review the party program in light of events since the 1944 conference. Two leading comrades in the branch submitted a report. There was no mention in the report, or in the floor discussion that followed, about the CA section of the BLPI program.26

 

The Indian Trotskyists and the Constituent Assembly demand Page 7 of 14 

 

If there had been “significant opposition,” then these two comrades would surely have raised it. They were leaders of what became the anti-CA minority in 1947! 

 

Warning signs of centrism 

 

With the end of the war in sight the Congress leaders started an unofficial campaign for a return to office. The BLPI sharply criticized the leftist parties in Congress who refused to fight the leadership on this question; the BLPI pledged “full support” to any rank-and-file militants who resisted. But they went one step farther. the BLPI put forward the slogan, “Consolidate the left forces in Congress through these struggles.”27 

That was a significant change in line. The BLPI had always polemicized against leftists who thought they could build up a revolutionary left wing inside the Congress.28 This call to “consolidate the left” in a bourgeois party was in essence no different than Stalin-Bukharin’s line on the Kuomintang in 1927. The ICL can’t blame the “rightist faction” for this centrist wobble. Philip Gunawardena and his entire faction had been arrested in 1943 and were serving jail terms in Ceylon. The leadership of the BLPI was in the hands of what the ICL calls the “left faction.” 

 

Crossing the class line 

 

After the war the BLPI faced an unexpected situation. Britain was bankrupt, and the new Labour government was under tremendous pressure from its American banker to reach a “settlement” in India if it wanted to get more loans and food to feed its hungry working classes. Hence, in 1945 the British decided to hold new elections in India and promised to convene a “Constituent Assembly” to establish an independent Indian Dominion within the Commonwealth. The Attlee administration’s goal was to “transfer power” to a coalition government in India while maintaining control over its military bases and the huge Indian Army, which the British needed to put down the nationalist-Communist insurgencies in South East Asia. 

 

At that point the issue of the CA became a focal point of Indian politics. The Congress and Muslim League mobilized huge election campaigns. The League ran on the slogan for Pakistan, while Congress stumped for their version of a CA. The policy for a Trotskyist party in these elections should have been crystal clear. No support to the candidates of the bourgeois Congress and Muslim League. As for the Congress Socialists and CPI, neither warranted critical support. The Socialists were running merely as Congressmen, while the Stalinists were calling for votes to both the Congress and the League. 

 

These elections provided the BLPI with an opportunity to unmask the nationalists and reformists and explain to the masses why a revolution was needed to resolve the communal conflicts that were slowly tearing the country apart. The BLPI should have recognized the change and independently raised the demand for a genuine CA. 

 

The BLPI Central Committee, however, couldn’t agree on a line for the elections. So they circulated two documents for internal discussion. One argued for supporting any individual candidate, regardless of party affiliation, on the basis of a single criterion: “What part did he take in, what attitude did he take to the August Struggle?” The other accepted that approach but added that CPI candidates who ran in the labor constituencies should be supported, too.29 The authors of both position papers were allied to the Doric de Souza faction in Ceylon. 

In October 1945 the CC convened an expanded meeting, including representatives from the party branches, to resolve the question.After two days of debate, a majority adopted the following position: 

 

“We oppose Congress, but are ready in token of our solidarity with the real uprising of the masses in 1942 and of our aim to unremitting struggle today to support any candidate of any political affiliation, even if he is a Congressman, who (in the judgment of the party) really identifies himself with and gives full support to the mass uprising of 1942… We support and vote for such a candidate, even if he is a Congressman.”30

 

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The BLPI swore that they weren’t supporting Congress – only the Quit India movement. But they were fooling only themselves. Bottom line, the BLPI was calling for votes to candidates of a bourgeois party – a party whom the Muslim masses quite legitimately despised and feared. This line was a formula for exacerbating the communal conflict and driving both sides deeper into the arms of their misleaders. 

The ICL can’t pin this rightist deviation on the Gunawardena faction. Doric de Souza chaired the CC meeting where this line was adopted. Philip Gunawardena, who had just been released from jail in Ceylon, quite rightly denounced the election line as “opportunist through and through” for “virtually supporting Congress candidates.”31 

 

The critical turning point

In 1946 the Cabinet Mission announced their plan for establishing an “interim national government” and a “constituent assembly” that would draft a Constitution, subject to ratification by Parliament. The BLPI Central Committee met and decided that “(1) there was nothing in the programme to prevent our advancing the slogan of Constituent Assembly in suitable circumstances and (2) the development of events thus far in relation to the Cabinet Mission negotiations do not necessitate this slogan being advanced.” 32 

The BLPI called a press conference in Bombay and blasted the plan: 

 

“What is being set up is merely a constitution drafting agency of British imperialism, working to imperialism’s mandate and subject to imperialism’s self-interested decisions. It is not even a fake Constituent Assembly for a fake transfer of power. It is a carefully designed instrument for negotiating the permanent framework of a long-term imperialist-bourgeois-feudalist alliance... Down with the Cabinet Mission! Down with the Collaborationist parties! Down with imperialism’s fake Constituent Assembly! On with the struggle for India’s independence!” 33 

 

They BLPI rightly called the proposed CA a fraud – so did Congress – but they didn’t put forward any revolutionary alternative. They simply called on Congress to resume “struggle.” 

 

Worse, the BLPI press continued to trash the very idea of Muslim self-determination as a “pipe dream of the Muslim feudalists.” These were exactly the same arguments that the Congress ideologues used

 

The fuse of civil war 

 

Jinnah, fed up with the British bias towards Congress, announced that the League was bidding farewell to constitutional methods. He called on Muslims to take “direct action” on August 16th to force the British and Congress to accept Pakistan. This was no idle threat. The League had just won a resounding victory in the elections with the promise of Pakistan. The communalist Hindu Mahasabha called on Hindus to “break” the Muslim hartals. The paramilitary squads on both sides prepared for a fight. British military intelligence estimated that these squads, taken all together, numbered half a million men

 

In Calcutta, where Muslims and Hindus were almost equally divided, the sectarian violence raged for four days, leaving more than 5,000 dead and 15,000 wounded. The violence spread into eastern Bengal and westward into Bihar. The historian Anita Inder Singh argues that this was the decisive turning point: 

 

“Rape, forced marriages, conversions…meant that stories and rumors spread like wildfire, arousing the deepest hatred and the fiercest desire for revenge; and stirred Hindus into waging the most bloody and brutal vengeance on Muslims in Bihar and the UP. This was the breaking point. A handful of riots in a few cities would not have led to it. But atrocities committed on a mass scale could not be forgotten on either side, and they lent the most sinister definition to Pakistan and Hindustan.” 34

The BLPI condemned the violence, blamed both the Congress and the League for fomenting communalism, and called for class solidarity. But the party didn’t seem to fully grasp what was happening. The BLPI continued to dismiss the Pakistan slogan as just a “pipe dream of the Muslim feudalists.” Yet Muslims and Hindus were killing each other every day in the name of their two counterposed ideals – Pakistan versus Akhand Bharat [Undivided India]. India was becoming Palestine writ very large.

 

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A belated recognition of reality 

 

After the League rejected the fake Constituent Assembly, and sealed that decision in blood, the Congress suddenly dropped its boycott and took their seats. That prompted the BLPI Central Committee to reconsider its previous decision. The BLPI, under the leadership of what the ICL calls the “left faction,” raised the call for “a relentless struggle for the dissolution of the fake Constituent Assembly, the overthrow of British Imperialism and the summoning of a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly.” 35 What had changed? 

 

 

According to a subsequent CC report to the party: 

 

“This attitude of the Congress [to boycott the CA] changed subsequently, however, and the CC meeting of December, 1946 felt it necessary to put forward the slogan of a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly, elected on universal franchise and outside the orbit of British imperialism, as a propaganda slogan in order to expose the fake character of the ‘Constituent Assembly’ that was in session.”36 

The BLPI leadership, having until then pooh-poohed the idea of a Constituent Assembly, now bent the stick in the opposite direction. In their draft resolution, circulated prior to the May 1947 conference, they advanced the demand for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly as the centerpiece of the party’s program for the coming period. That drastic change provoked opposition. Some leading comrades in the Calcutta branch thought the new slogan misguided. In their view the CA “has been absolutely unreal to the Indian people, 90% of whom are shoved aside, the representation of the rest being indirect at that.” 37 Therefore, the BLPI should just “expose it in the way we had been doing in the past.” 

 

The BLPI should have raised the slogan of the RCA when the Cabinet Mission first landed in India. The ministers spent three months floating one scheme after another for the transfer of power – a federation with a weak central government and lots of provincial autonomy, groupings of provinces that could opt out of a union if they wished, etc. Instead of vague exhortations to “continue the struggle” (the mantra of the petty bourgeois Congress left), the BLPI should have raised the demand for immediate elections on a universal suffrage to freely debate and decide the issues of provincial autonomy, federation, or partition. 

 

Absent Soviets, a democratically elected CA, like the Duma in Czarist Russia, would have at least provided an arena – for the first time in India - where the political parties could fight out their respective programs for the future of 400 million people. Neither the Congress nor the Muslim League wanted that. The fight for a CA would have given a propaganda league like the BLPI at least the opportunity to hammer home the message that the Congress and Muslim League were just as determined as Mountbatten that the masses should have no voice in their future.

The debate over the Constituent Assembly at the 1947 and 1948 conferences 

 

At the May 1947 national conference three positions on the CA were advanced. The party’s general secretary, Leslie Goonewardene, held that (a) the slogan as formulated in the BLPI program was valid, (b) the party had been right to raise the slogan when Congress decided to join the assembly, and (c) since popular enthusiasm for the assembly had since waned, the slogan should be withdrawn. 38 This methodology smacks of tailism and negates the whole purpose of a transitional demand, which is to rouse popular enthusiasm and support for a line of action. 

 

A delegate from Bombay proposed that the RCA “should be the central slogan of the Transitional Program.” 39 The rationale was that “owing to the unique situation in India a temporary bourgeois-democratic regime might come about.” A British Trotskyist who attended the conference aptly noted that this position was “inspired by a schematic conception of the inevitability of a ‘Kerensky stage’ in the Indian revolution.” 40

 

 

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The Calcutta minority took the inverted position, arguing that there could be no intermediary stage in the revolution.

 

 

“The Crisis of British Imperialism,” Fourth International, July-August 1947, p. 204. 

 

 

The abstract quality of this position wasn’t accidental. The proponents – P.K. Roy (1925-75), Arun Bose (1919-2002), and Doric de Souza (1914-87) – were all academic Marxists, and their base of support was the BLPI’s student group at elite Presidency College in Calcutta, the Indian equivalent of Cambridge or Harvard. In one of its reports the British Intelligence service described the Calcutta branch of the BLPI as a “band of academic votaries of Trotskyism.” 42 

 

P.K. Roy was a mathematical prodigy. In 1945, when he was only 20, he became a protégé of the famous physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, who had collaborated with Einstein to formulate what became known as the Bose-Einstein Statistics. Roy regarded the theory of permanent revolution like an elegant equation that defined the most direct, efficient way to go from point A (democratic phase) to point B (socialist overturn). The CA was an irrational detour. 

 

Arun Bose, a wunderkind from an old elite Calcutta family, had gone to Cambridge on a scholarship, wowed his Economics professor, the Stalinist Maurice Dobb, and returned to India in 1940 with letters of recommendation from the British CP that catapulted him into the CC of the CPI. But his academic view of Marxism rankled his stodgy Stalinist comrades, and in 1947 he defected to the BLPI in Calcutta, which was a super-stimulating intellectual debating society more to his liking. The BLPI considered him such a “good catch” that he was voted to chair the 1947 conference. 

 

Doric de Souza, another precocious academic superstar from a distinguished family in Ceylon, likewise went to London on a scholarship and when he returned to Ceylon in 1937, he was offered a position in the English Department of the University College, Colombo, even though he hadn’t completed his PhD. 

 

The Calcutta minority and the debate over independence

At the 1947 conference the other hot debate revolved around whether or not the British were actually going to “transfer power” on August 15. Some took the view that British imperialism would switch from “direct rule” to “indirect rule.” 43 Others argued that the transfer of power would be more or less real.44 

 

P.K. Roy, on the other hand, argued that since the tasks of the democratic revolution can be carried out only by a Soviet socialist regime, the British exodus could not possibly result in independence. He characterized the Mountbatten plan as a big fraud and held that Britain would “work a political alliance within the existing framework of direct rule.” (my emphasis) Doric de Souza softened that position. He argued that India would become a “semi-colony” of Britain. But he emphasized, “in no case does the loosening of political ties mean the liquidation of British Imperialism, or the freedom of the colonies.” 45 

 

Thus, the opponents of the CA showed the same rigid, scholastic thinking on the question of how Britain would extricate itself from the mess in India. Their sterile, academic understanding of Marxism blinkered them from seeing what was really happening. Even after the transfer of power, the Calcutta minority around P.K. Roy continued to maintain that nothing qualitative had happened. At the next BLPI conference, held in Calcutta in 1948, Roy and his followers voted against the majority line that India now had “political independence.” While this might sound very leftist, the implications were actually quite the opposite: if India was still essentially a colony, then the Indian bourgeoisie still had an anti-imperialist role to play. P.K. Roy in fact advanced an amendment that “the oppositional role of the bourgeoisie had not been exhausted since the basic needs of the bourgeoisie have not been satisfied.”46

 

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The CA and “entryism”

At the 1947 convention the delegates from Bombay proposed that the BLPI carry out a Trotskyist “entry tactic” in the Socialist Party, which at that point was preparing to exit the Congress. Some of the delegates who supported this proposal also supported the majority on the RCA. But while the RCA resolution was passed, the proposal for entry was defeated. The ICL, however, makes a big deal out of the overlap. They argue that the political line on the RCA and the organizational tactic for entryism were two sides of the same “rightist” coin: 

 

“The lines of division on this question [the RCA] were almost identical to those over the proposed liquidationist entry of the BLPI into the Socialist Party, which was debated at the same time… the result was entirely negative: the party came to embrace the constituent assembly slogan, which it had formerly rejected, and then collapsed into the social democracy. It appears that the Calcutta-based left wing was worn down until it finally offered little resistance to these disastrous moves, which led to the disappearance of the BLPI.”

This argument is specious. The Calcutta minority did not oppose the entry tactic – they objected to the target. In Calcutta, unlike Bombay, the Socialist Party had little heft. The Forward Block of Subhas Bose, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, and a bevy of smaller parties played the role of Congress Left. The Calcutta minority proposed that the BLPI seek a merger with the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCPI), a centrist hodgepodge of radical nationalists, former terrorists, and proto-Shachtmanites. After the British set up their fake CA, the RCPI called upon the Left to join together to form Soviets and a “People’s Constituent Assembly,” so that they’d be ready when the masses rose up.47 


 

 

At the 1948 BLPI conference the Calcutta minority insisted that no entry decision be made until the party leadership had concluded negotiations with both the SP and the RCPI. The discussions with the RCPI hit a wall on the Russian Question. The RCPI majority was embracing Shachtman’s position. With that, the Calcutta minority reluctantly voted in favor of entering the SP. 

The two debates – the CA and entryism – were more like the opposite ends of a see-saw than the two sides of a coin. At the 1947 conference the RCA was adopted and the entry tactic rejected. At the 1948 conference the RCA was rejected and the entry tactic adopted. 48 


What really happened to the “left wing” minority

After the 1947 conference Doric de Souza, who represented the Ceylon unit of the BLPI, returned home, where the Ceylon unit was busy campaigning for the first general election to Parliament. When the United National Party failed to win a majority of the vote, the Ceylon unit of the BLPI – led by Doric de Souza – issued a statement saying that it would support the formation of an anti-UNP opposition government which would include bourgeois parties such as the Ceylon Indian Congress, the Indian National Congress, and the Ceylon National Congress. A representative of the British section of the FI who was visiting India was taken aback: 

 

“Although our comrades made it quite clear that they would not support the actions, but only the formation, of such a government, this statement must nevertheless, in the opinion of the reporter, be regarded as an opportunist deviation… the action of our comrades in calling upon the working class to support the formation of such a government must, in my opinion, rank as an error similar to that of the PCI minority in calling upon the workers to vote for a bourgeois constitution for France.”49 [emphasis in original] 

 

In his polemics Doric could sound very left, but back on his home turf he took the same rightist position as the rival LSSP. The “deep divide” between the Ceylonese factions wasn’t as deep as the ICL thinks. Doric de Souza helped write the centrist program that formed the basis for the reunification with the LSSP in 1950. 

 

The role of Arun Bose – another “leftist” lionized by the ICL – was even worse. Not long after the 1947 BLPI conference he defected from the BLPI and rejoined the CPI, which hailed the Constituent Assembly as “the strategic The Indian Trotskyists and the Constituent Assembly demand Page 12 of 14 In around 1951 he left the CPI and pursued an academic career, becoming well known for his attempt to expunge the Labor Theory of Value from Marxist economics.The Indian Trotskyists and the Constituent Assembly demand Page 13 of 14 Shortly after the founding conference, the Calcutta group suddenly announced that they had reached “basic agreement” with a remnant of the old RCPI – the party they wanted to join in 1948. The RCPI still had basic programmatic differences with Trotskyism, especially on the Russian question. The Calcutta Pabloists finally pushed their comrades into an unprincipled merger with the RCPI on a program that pledged to support “those efforts of the leading parties of the Workers States” that were “ensuring continued better living conditions and wider democracy for the masses, wider socialization and complete elimination of bureaucracy.” Not surprisingly, the Pabloist International Secretariat called the program “a revolutionary Marxist one.”

 

The Indian Trotskyists and the Constituent Assembly demand Page 14 of 14 

 

Conclusion 

 

In this article I have tried to offer an explanation, based on primary sources of that period and the many interviews that I have held with key participants, why the BLPI adopted a line on the Constituent Assembly that differed from the formulation in the Transitional Program of 1938. In reviewing all the documentation once again I saw weaknesses that I didn’t fully explore in my book. I have presented those facts and my own interpretations in this article. This in no way changes my overall assessment of the Indian Trotskyists. 

 

The ICL article does the Indian Trotskyists a great disservice. Their narrative is built on factual errors, misrepresentations, and a theory that doesn’t hold water. If there is any integrity left in the ICL, they should repudiate this attack on a party that tried to make a revolution in conditions that were far more challenging and dangerous than anything the aging “leading comrades” of the ICL have ever had to face.


Footnotes

1 “Marxism and Bourgeois Parliamentarism: Why We Reject the ‘Constituent Assembly’ Demand,” Spartacist, no. 63 (Winter 2012-13). The line change was first announced, abruptly, in the middle of an article on the Tunisian elections in the newspaper of the ICL’s French section (Le Bolchévik, no. 198, December 2011). 

 

2 C. W. Ervin, Tomorrow is Ours: The Trotskyist Movement in India and Ceylon, 1935-1948 (2006), pp. 219-23.

 

3 Sir Syed Ahmad, The Present State of Indian Politics (1888), p. 12. 

 

4 Speech at the Round Table Conference in London, 1930. G. Allana, Pakistan Movement Historical Documents (1969), pp. 61-75. He was a founder of the Muslim League, a leader of the Khilafat Movement in 1919, and former president of the Congress. 

 

5 Congress Working Committee resolution on “White Paper and Communal Award,” June 18, 1934, in B.N. Pande and M.N. Das (eds.), A Centenary History of the Indian National Congress (1985), vol. 3, pp. 261-62. 

 

6 Jawaharlal Nehru, “The Unity of India,” in The Unity of India: Collected Writings 1937-40 (1940), p. 23.

 

 7 S. Gopal (ed.), Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (1976), vol. IX, pp.599-600. 

 

8 S.S. Pirzada, Foundations of Pakistan: All-India Muslim League Documents, 1906-1947 (1970), vol. II, p. 338. 

 

9 Speech of the Marquess of Zetland on April 18, 1040, Hansards, vol. 116, April 18, 1940. Also: Lawrence John Lumley Dundas, Essayez: The memoirs of Lawrence, second Marquess of Zetland (1956), pp. 284-85. 

 

10 M. Muzaffar, “India’s fight against the India Bill,” Labour Monthly, May 1935, pp. 301-5. 

 

11 “Hindustan ke mazduro, kisano ka nara kya ho? Sanvidhana sabha wa mazdur rajya?” [What should be the slogan of the workers and peasants of India - Constituent Assembly or Workers’ State?], Samaj [Society], January 17, 1938, p. 7. My translation. 

 

12 Bolshevik-Leninist-Trotskyist Draft Provisional Program (1938), p. 45. Also: Hindi mazdur tratskist parti. Karyakram [Workers Trotskyist Party of India. Program] March, 1943. 

 

13 Saumyendranath Thakur, Punjivadi Prajatantrik Kranti aur Bharat [Bourgeois Democratic Revolution and India] (1939), p. 46. 

 

14 Samyavad ane Hind [Socialism and India], 1939. The Indian Trotskyists and the Constituent Assembly demand Page 4 of 14

 

15 Carlo [V. Karalasingham], “Report of the Provisional Central Committee of the BLPI,” September 20, 1944, typescript; subsequently published in News Commentary [Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain], vol. 1 (August 4, 1945), p. 1. 

16 For a factual rather than fictional account of the split in the LSSP see Tomorrow is Ours, chapter 6. The ICL has added not one iota of new evidence. 

 

17 See “Report of the Provisional Central Committee of the BLPI,” September 20, 1944. 

 

18 “We do not oppose the slogan of the Constituent Assembly. It has become a part of our Transitional Program.” “Bharatiya krantikari mazdoor parti (Tratskivadi) ke vichar, mangom aur karyakram” [Views, demands, and program of the Revolutionary Workers Party (Trotskyist)], Jivan [Life], February 6, 1948, p. 5. My translation. 

 

19 Letter from C.P.S. [Chandravadan Shukla], L.S.G. [Leslie Goonewardene], and E.B.S. [Bernard Soysa] to Bureau of the FI, June 29, 1942, p. 1. The report of the Provisional Central Committee to the first BLPI conference in 1944 also states that “full agreement was reached on all programmatic and organizational questions.” 

 

20 V. I. Lenin, “Speech on Parliamentarianism” (August 2, 1920), in Collected Works, 4th English Edition, (1966), pp. 255-56.

 

21 Draft Programme of the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India. Indian Section of the Fourth International (Bombay, 1942), pp. 20 and 32. 

 

22 ibid, p. 36.

 

23 “The 1940s ‘Quit India’ Movement: Stalinist Alliance with Churchill Betrayed Indian Revolution,” Workers Vanguard, no. 970, December 3, 2010, reprinted from Workers Hammer, nos. 131 and 132, September/November 1992. 

 

24 “To the Workers and Peasants of India,” Permanent Revolution, vol. 1, no. 2 (April 1943), pp. 23-33. The BLPI also reprinted the manifesto as a pamphlet: Fourth Internationalist Library, vol. 1, May 1943. 

 

25 “Minutes of the First Representative Conference of the BLPI,” typescript [1944], p. 10. According to the minutes, “Comrade Livera [Doric de Souza] initiated the general discussion and said that as far as possible an attempt had been made to bring the figures [in the original draft of 1941] to the latest year for which the statistics were available.” After some discussion, “The party program as amended was accepted.” 

 

26 “Discussion on the Political Report on Present Political Situation in India,” Internal Bulletin, no. 2 (September 1945), pp. 1-6.

 

27 Ministry-Makers and ‘Leftist’ Fakers, BLPI pamphlet (April, 1945), p.8. 

 

28 The BLPI’s 1944 conference resolution stated that the only choice facing the Congress Socialists was “either to surrender to the reactionary Congress Right Wing or to leave Congress altogether.” “The Present Political Situation in India,” Resolution adopted at the First Representative Conference of the BLPI, 20-25 September 1944, Permanent Revolution, vol. 2, nos. 2-4 (April-December 1944), p. 24; also: “The Future of the CSP,” Permanent Revolution, vol. 3, no. 1 (January-April 1945), p. 39. 

 

29 Leslie Goonewardene and Colvin de Silva wrote the document calling for votes to candidates who upheld the Quit India movement. Indra Sen advocated voting for CPI candidates. 

 

30 Quoted in D.G. [Douglas Garbutt], “Report on the Fourth International Movement in India,” [1946], typescript, p.17. This line was subsequently elaborated in the party’s election manifesto, Vote for August, Vote for Struggle.

 

31 Internal Bulletin [LSSP], vol. 1, no. 2 (March 1947), p. 2. Reprinted in Samasamajist, October 20, 1948. 

 

32 “Report Presented to Party Convention beginning May 21, 1947,” Internal Bulletin, vol.2, no. 1 [May 1947], p. 12. 

 

33 “Bolshevik-Leninist Party on Cabinet Proposals,” Spark, vol. 1, no. 9 (Mid July 1946), p. 6. 

 

34 Anita Inder Singh, The Origins of the Partition of India 1936-1947 (1987), p. 249.

 

35 “What we stand for,” New Spark, April 26, 1947. 

 

36 “Report Presented to Party Convention beginning May 21, 1947,” Internal Bulletin, vol.2, no. 1 [May 1947], p. 12.

 

37 Roby, Chester, and Bibhuty, “A Criticism of the Draft Resolution as Submitted by the CC,” Internal Bulletin (1 April 1947), pp. 6-7. “Roby,” “Chester,” and “Bibhuty” were definitely pseudonyms. My educated guess is that they were among the leading lights of the anti-CA faction. If so, likely candidates would be P.K. Roy, Hiranand Mishra, Dulal Bose, and Z.H. Khan. 

 

38 The sponsors of that proposal included Leslie Goonewardene, Colvin de Silva, and Indra Sen. “Report of the First Party Convention Held May 21-24, 1947,” p. 5. 

 

39 Hector Abhayavardhana, V.S.S. Sastry, Anthony Pillai, V. Karalasingham, and Raj Narayan Arya advocated this position. H.A. Vardhan [Hector Abhayavardhana], “Convention Discussion on the Constituent Assembly: A Summing Up,” Internal Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 3 (September

 

25, 1947), p. 4-12. See also Raj Narain, “The Slogan of R.C.A. Why Should We Retain It?,” Internal Bulletin, vol. 3, no. 1 (1 March 1948), pp. 1-3. 

40 J.F., “Report on the activities of the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India during 1947,” December 18, 1947, p. 6-7.

 

41 Therefore, the call for a CA, which allegedly “implied” and “visualized” such a stage, “was a departure from the theory of Permanent Revolution.” The same British observer regarded this position as “an equally wooden conception of the impossibility of a ‘Kerensky stage.’” 

 

41 The main proponents of this position were P.K. Roy, Hiranand Mishra, and Doric de Souza. “Report of the First Party Convention Held May 21-24, 1947,” Internal Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 1 [May 1947], p. 5; Arun Bose, “Programme and Reality,” Internal Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 3 (25 September 1947), pp 13-16; P.K. Roy, “Opportunism on the Question of the Constituent Assembly,” Internal Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 3 (25 September 1947), pp. 17-21. 

 

42 “The Communist Survey No. 3 of 1944,” Section II: The Fourth International or Trotskyist Movement in India, p. 5. India Office Library: Folder L/P&J/12/431, File Pol. (S) 2002/1944. 

 

43 “Report of First Party Convention Held May 21-24, 1947,” pp. 3-4. 

 

44 Tilak [Leslie Goonewardene] ventured that Britain might have to “grant sovereignty to her colonies” in order to “salvage her empire.” Gupta [Indra Sen] thought that there’d be a “transfer of a certain quantum of power.” Menon [S.C.C. Anthony Pillai] opined that there would be “some degree of political independence.” 

 

45 Doric de Souza,

 

46 “Summary of minutes of the Calcutta Conventioin of the BLPI, 1948,” Internal Bulletin, August 31, 1948, p. 4.

 

47 S.N. Tagore, “Forward to the People’s Constituent Assembly,” February 17, 1947, reprinted in The Hour Has Struck (1949), p.15. 

 

48 At the 1948 conference the majority adopted the line that Leslie Goonewardene had put forward at the 1947 conference. “This Convention directs the re-drafting of the programme along the line that the Party is entitled to raise the Constituent Assembly slogan independently, when circumstances warrant it, and in a suitable form and manner.” “Resolution on Constituent Assembly,” Internal Bulletin, July 1948, p. 1; and “Summary of Minutes of the Calcutta Convention of the BLPI,” Internal Bulletin, August 31, 1948, p. 6. 

 

49 “Report by JF on the Activities of the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India during 1947,” typescript, December 18, 1947.

 

 

 

 


About the author 

Charles Wesley Ervin is the author of Tomorrow Is Ours: The Trotskyist Movement in India and Ceylon, 1935-1948 (2006) and Philip Gunawardena: the Making of a Revolutionary (2001). He is currently writing a biography of the Bengali nuclear physicist and Marxist intellectual, Purnangshu Kumar Roy. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 


 

Citation/reproduction of the content in this article: 

 

I am hereby placing this document in the Public Domain. You do not need my permission to reproduce the content of this article. However, I do request that you provide the following citation if you reproduce the article in whole or in part or cite the primary sources in the footnotes:

Charles Wesley Ervin, “The Indian Trotskyists and the Constituent Assembly Demand (July 31, 2015).”

MARK ANTHONY Lyster Bracegirdle, at 84 years of age a legend in his own lifetime, lives in retirement in London. His exploits against the planter raj in Ceylon sixty years ago reverberated across the British Empire, investing him with the aura of a folk hero. He has long been a symbol of the island’s anti-imperialist struggle of the 1930s and has held a fascination for many a Sri Lankan who has made the trek to his Wandsworth retirement home. An unlikely visitor was a former Sri Lankan police officer – new domiciled in Australia – who in a memoir published in 1995 devoted an entire chapter to the Bracegirdle saga.

Another policeman then attached to the island’s CID, who met Bracegirdle in Borella on 17 January 1937, recorded in his log: ‘He was dressed in a shirt, sarong and bedroom slippers. His views are strongly Communist and decidedly anti-British ... He is a well-made good-looking young man of about 24 years of age, has very regular features and a charming smile... His hair is dark brown and in large waves, and his eyes are greenish blue. In profile he is rather like the poet Rupert Brooke.’

The young immigrant arrived here in Ceylon from Sydney on the SS Bendigo on 4 April 1936 and started ‘creeping’ – learning to be a planter – on a hill country tea estate, Relugas, at Madulkelle. It was the beginning of the Bracegirdle episode that provoked a notable political and constitutional crisis.

Mark was born in Chelsea, London, ors 10 September 1912 and was educated at a school in Kennington. On the eve of the Great Depression he emigrated to Australia with his mother, a suffragette who had been active in Holborn Labour Party and a candidate in 1925 for the borough council. He studied art at a Sydney art school. Then he trained as a farmer on an agricultural-livestock station in the outback. About 1935 he joined the Australian Young Communist League.

What was it made him go to Ceylon? Bracegirdle: ‘Well, mainly the fact that I was going to learn a new type of agriculture, but nothing really political at that time. I had no knowledge of the politics of Ceylon. On the estate we heard of the left-wing movement and I had a young planter with me, a chap named Simpson Hayward. We contacted Vernon Gunasekera [secretary of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP)] who arranged a meeting with us, and everything started from there. The thing that really made me befriend the movement was the bad treatment the workers received on the estates.’

The superintendent of Relugas was a Blimpesque supervisor who drove his workers hard. He would go down to the Imerooms to force workers to go to work. ‘Despite many people having malaria, or suffering badly from the results of malaria, he would insist on them picking.’ Bracegirdle also resented the superintendent’s interventions in the estate school where he forced children to go out and pick tea. ‘He used to say, it is far better that they should learn to pick. Learning to read and write was only copying white men, and it does them no good at all, and will give them ideas in later life above their station.’

Soon there was labour trouble on the estate when the superintendent fired several workers and as a result fifty labourers left the workforce. Accused of fraternising with the workers, Bracegirdle was given short shrift by his employers, who booked a return passage for him on a steamer bound for Australia on 24 November 1936. He declined to oblige and did not sail as expected. He decided to stay put on the island.

The planters were a powerful group of capitalists – the vast British-owned tea and rubber estates covered half of all the cultivable land in the country, hemming in the Sinhalese villages on every side. Tea and rubber, two of the island’s main exports, accounted for the major share of its earnings. Tamil workers had been brought by the British from South India, from the third decade of the 19th century onwards, to provide cheap labour for the plantations. The workforce, numbering half a million in the hill country in the 1930s, were the largest concentration of the working class and the most exploited section. The British were solely interested in extracting maximum profit from estate labour, who lived in squalor in their barrack-like linerooms, segregated from the rest of the population. The children of the labourers were afforded second class schooling – a very rudimentary type of education. Trespass laws denied trade unionists access to the estates.

K. Natesa Iyer, a South Indian journalist, had pioneered the labour movement in the plantations in the early 1930s. The planters were quick to realise the political and economic threat the workforce posed if they organised themselves into unions. They reacted with a virulent campaign to discredit Natesa Iyer and undermine his efforts at unionisation. Caste issues were raised to set the kanganies (overseers) and the subordinate staff (tea-makers, clerks and conductors) against the workers. The employers even financed a weekly Tamil paper. This propaganda rag referred to the worker as ‘an ignorant individual who would give his last penny to hear some maniac get on to a platform and run others down’, and said that hanging was too good a fate for men like Natesa Iyer, ‘lest they pollute the very rope from whose end they might sway’. The chairman of the Planters’ Association railed at ‘self constituted leaders who seek to exploit the labourers as a means of livelihood.’

Bracegirdle’s interest in improving the conditions of plantation labour prompted Natesa Iyer, who was the member of the State Council for Hatton, to offer the former a stint in the trade union he had founded in 1931.

But Bracegirdle joined the LSSP, a broad socialist party founded barely a year earlier by a group of young intellectuals – Philip Gunawardena, Dr N.M. Perera, Dr Colvin R. de Silva, Dr S.A Wicksemasinghe and Leslie Goonewardene – who had returned to the island in the early 1930s having completed their education abroad where they had been influenced by the Marxist and labour movements.

The maverick planter began to participate energetically in the party’s activities, on which the police kept a close watch. On 28 November 1936, at an LSSP meeting in Maradana, the president of the party, Dr Colvin R. de Silva, introduced Bracegirdle: ‘This is the first time a white comrade has ever attended a party meeting held at a street corner.’ Bracegirdle made a speech in which he said that he brought greetings from the workers of Australia. ‘The capitalists and imperialists were preparing for war and in the event of a war it will be the workers who would have to face the war and suffer.’ He warned the workers that the capitalists were trying to split the workers, of Lanka into two different camps and put one against the other.

He also took an active part in organising a protest meeting in Colombo to mark Sir Herbert Dowbiggin’s departure from the island. It was called to protest against the atrocities during Dowbiggin’s tenure as Inspector General of Police. Bracegirdle referred to police excesses (according to a police report revealed subsequently at the Bracegirdle Commission hearings) in ‘Putting harmless villagers out of their beds at night and shooting them down long after the 1915 riots had been quelled.’

By an interesting coincidence his appearances on LSSP platforms occurred during the fortnight-long visit of Mrs Karnaladevi Chattopadhyaya, a leader of the Indian Congress Socialist Party and one of the most colourful figures of the Indian liberation movement. A South Indian, she was the wife of the poet/playwright Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, brother of the renowned Sarojini Naidu. In 1926 she was the first woman in India to run for the Legislative Council. She was jailed for participating in Gandhi’s Salt March of 1930.

Bracegirdle was on hand with other LSSPers to meet Mrs Chattopadhyaya on her arrival in Colombo. He also accompanied her to meetings in the plantation districts – Kandy, Hatton, Nuwara Eliya and Nawalapitiya. On 3 April, at a meeting at Nawalapitiya attended by two thousand estate workers, at which Mrs Chattopadhyaya spoke, Dr N.M. Perera, Member of the State Council for Rwanwella, said: ‘Comrades, I have an announcement to make. You know we have a white comrade (applause) ... He has generously consented to address you. I call upon Comrade Bracegirdle to address you.’

Bracegirdle mounted the platform to cheers, clapping and tumultuous cries of ‘samy, samy’ [god]. He said: ‘Comrade Kamaladevi has pointed out to you how you poor labourers are being mercilessly exploited (cheers). You see those white hills – you see those white bungalows – there the whites live in all luxury. I was also employed in one of the estates ... I came here as I heard it was a rich country, so it is. But all its riches have gone into the pockets of my countrymen (cries of shame, shame). You have only to work for nine hours. You need not work a minute after that. If you work, the estate must pay you overtime. But you know on every estate the rule is that you must work twelve hours. But the planter will not pay you for the extra three hours. Rise, rise and win your freedom and gain your rights (repeated cries of samy, samy).’

A government official who took down Bracegirdle’s speech observed ‘the most noteworthy feature of this meeting ... was the presence of Bracegirdle and his attack on the planters. He claimed unrivalled knowledge of the misdeeds of the planters and promised scandalous exposures. His delivery, facial appearance, his posture were all very threatening ... Every sentence was punctuated with cries of samy, samy from the labourers. Labourers were heard to remark that Mr Bracegirdle has correctly said that they should not allow planters to break labour laws and they must in future not take things lying down.’

Bracegirdle had joined the Samasamajists who were among the most articulate critics of imperialism and his speeches in a similar vein created a sensation and outraged the planting community. Soon the Peria Dorais – the estate bosses – were in cahoots with the colonial sahibs in Colombo to bundle the rebel planter out of the colony. To this end an old regulation – a relic of the Victorian era meant for wartime – exigencies which had lapsed in all colonial territories except the island – was dusted off and invoked. The Governor, Sir Edward Stubbs, who was vacationing in Nuwara Eliya, signed the Order requiring Bracegirdle ‘to quit the island’ and if he refused to obey directed the police ‘to arrest and remove him on board of any ship or boat proceeding from any port in the island to Australia.’ He was given 48 hours to leave by the SS Mooltan, on which a berth had been booked for him by the government. The ship sailed on 25 April without Bracegirdle.

The police mounted a manhunt but the fugitive successfully evaded arrest. The affair gained nationwide publicity with public sympathy showing itself in favour of the rebel. The LSSP’s May Day demonstration that year highlighted the controversy with placards declaring, ‘We want Bracegirdle’, ‘Deport Stubbs’.

On 5 May, the ‘samasamajist twins’ in the State Council, Dr N.M. Perera and Philip Gunawardena, moved a vote of censure on the Governor for having ‘violated the constitution’ in ordering the deportation of Bracegirdle without the advice of the acting Home Minister, which was passed by 34 votes to 7. Of the elected members present there was only one dissentient, H.R Freeman the Member for Anuradhapura, a former British civil servant, who voted for the resolution. Responding to the public mood, members of the legislature criticised the Governor’s arbitrary action. Several of them had been jailed during the Riots and Stubbs was personally unpopular with them for his role as Colonial Secretary in 1915.

On the same day a meeting was called by the LSSP on Galle Face Green to protest against the Governor’s deportation order, which was attended by 50,000 people. Among the speakers were Dr N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena, A.E.Goonesinha, George E. de Silva, D.M. Rajapakse, Siripala Samarakkody, Vernon Gunasekera, Handy Perimbanayagam and Mrs K. Natesa Iyer (who spoke in Tamil). One of the speakers was S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Minister of Local Government. He said that although he was a Minister he was not afraid of attending that meeting. if the Governor told him he that he should not have done so, he was not afraid of ‘chucking up his job’. In a reference to the events of 1915 he said: ‘When defenceless women, aged men and innocent children were shot like cats, dogs and rats’ the powers under which the Governor perpetrated these atrocities were still retained by him ‘in spite of the hollow mockery of self-government that the country had been given’. Leslie Goonewardene said that Bracegirdle had identified with the workers, he even ate seeni sambol and rice with the workers and slept on the floor.

Shortly afterwards there was a stir among the crowd and Dr Colvin R. de Silva, who presided, appealed for calm. Bracegirdle was seen striding towards the platform. He mounted it and with a clenched fist stood by the chairman. He later recalled: ‘The problem was that the whole place was surrounded by policemen. Vernon said “no problem, just go straight through the crowd”. We walked through the crowd and I climbed up on the platform to a terrific cheer.’ The impact of his reappearance was electrifying. Addressing the meeting in English, Bracegirdle thanked the crowd for their presence. ‘I realise’, he said, ‘you are the only instrument of Ceylon’s freedom. My comrades, I may soon leave your beautiful country and never see you again, but as your comrade-in-arms I shall carry your struggles to the hearts of the working people of the whole world.’

Bracegirdle recounted how ‘the police came rushing in with an arrest warrant. Colvin took hold of the warrant. He said, “It’s out of date, by several hours. You have to get another warrant”. They said, “We can’t”.’ Two days later, however, Bracegirdle was arrested at Hulftsdorp. ‘I was living with Vernon Gunasekera. One morning several policemen with truncheons drawn marched in and arrested me.’ He had eluded the police for a fortnight.

Meanwhile the LSSP, which had orchestrated the moves skilfully was preparing to test the legality of the Governor’s order. A writ of habeas corpus was served and the legal battle before a bench of three Supreme Court Judges ensued. H.V. Perera, the brilliant civil lawyer, volunteered his services free on behalf of Bracegirdle. ‘My lawyer was made a King’s Counsel on the day I appeared in court’, Bracegirdle remembered. ‘One judge was Lord Justice Abrahams, a Jewish judge, and there were two Burgher judges.’ In the course of the legal arguments one judge referred to Bracegirdle as a ‘Wandering Jew’ – ‘and quick as a flash Abrahams retorted: “Or a Flying Dutchman”!’ On 18 May the court ordered that Bracegirdle could not be deported for exercising his right of free speech and he was released. Bracegirdle returned to England in the summer of 1937. He was seen off at the jetty by Dr N.M. Perera, Mrs Selina Perera, Vernon Gunasekera and Udakandawala Saranankara Thero.

Two significant events – the successful countrywide speaking tour of Mrs Chattopadhyaya and the Bracegirdle affair – propelled the LSSP to the forefront of national politics. The party grasped the chance to spearhead the burgeoning anti-imperialist movement. The Bracegirdle episode, though a distant memory, underscored the importance of safeguarding the fundamental right of free speech. The cause celebre in which Bracegirdle figured will always be of interest to students of Sri Lanka’s political history.


From Issue no.5, 1997 of the Marxist Discussion journal What Next? By kind permission of the editor Bob Pitt, 24 Georgiana St, London, NW1 0EA