BERNARD SOYSA died on 30 December 1997 at the National Hospital, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Bernard’s political life, spanning six decades in the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, consists of two periods; the first from 1937 to 1960, and the second from 1960 to 1997.
Bernard was one of the young Samasamajists in the 1930s who committed himself to the task of building a working-class party. Initiated into the Samasamajist movement in 1937 whilst a student at the University College, Colombo, he paid scant attention to his studies. Doric de Souza told me that Bernard could have passed his university exams like a shot, but he spent his time in the students’ canteen chatting politics, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. He dropped out of the University College, and after flirting with the teaching profession and the Law College for short periods, he was selected by the LSSP for pioneering work in India, to help build a Trotskyist party there. Along with V Balasingham, Doric de Souza and later Leslie Goonewardene, he was engaged in preparatory work to bring together the Trotskyist groups in various parts of India to form the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India in April 1942, with the LSSP as its Ceylon unit.
Soon after the BLPI was launched, the struggle in August 1942 against British rule in India took place. The BLPI plunged into the struggle in the areas where it had influence. Bernard, along with the Samasamajists from Ceylon, and the Indian Trotskyists were active participants in the struggle. Bernard was arrested in July 1943 in Bombay, months after the struggle was crushed. He was detained for 50 days in a Bombay police lock-up before being sent to Ceylon, where he was released on parole, but nonetheless continued to engage in underground party activity.
When the split in the party came into the open after the end of the war in 1945, Bernard was a leading member of the BLPI (Ceylon unit). He was an obvious choice for the Central Committee, and he often led political discussions for party members and sympathisers. When in May-June 1947, the big strike of Colombo blue- and white-collar workers took place, he intervened particularly in the strike of government clerical workers to instruct the leadership on the course of action. There were diverse forces trying to influence the leadership. Bernard put his knowledge of Marxism to good use when he had to debate with Stalinists to win over Colombo Municipal Council white-collar workers to the Trotskyist position, some of whom were confused. The result was a powerful local which was able to capture the leadership of the Colombo Municipal Employees Union.
In the 1950s, Bernard used to meet workers in government establishments on fixed days of the week after work, through the workers’ union leaders, to attend to their grievances. He had mastered the government’s administrative and financial regulations, and dictated letters which young students — party members or sympathisers — would take down and type on union letterheads addressed to the management. English was the official language, the above regulations were in English, and government communications were in English. His work in these places helped in the development of trade unions at the largest railway workshop at Ratmalana, the government engineering workshop at Kolonnawa (both suburbs of Colombo), and in the railway workshop at Dematagoda, Colombo. The ultimate result was the formation of the powerful LSSP-led Government Workers Trade Union Federation, which was to play a leading rôle in the strikes that took place after 1956 (the big strike in Colombo in 1947 ended in defeat, and the working class was dormant until 1956). Bernard’s work for the public sector unions was combined with his morning sessions at home, where he attended to the grievances of the city poor who would call at his home, and this saw him functioning at his best in day-to-day work.
In May 1960, when NM Perera proposed that the LSSP should form a coalition government with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Bernard opposed the proposal at a special conference. He said that the proposal would take the party across the line that divides the left from the right, to the right. The conference approved Perera’s proposal, but he did not have majority support in the new Central Committee. The Central Committee majority who opposed the proposal met at Osmund Jayaratne’s residence to discuss the situation. Although the idea of forming a faction to fight against the proposal within the party arose, it did not win approval. The opposition comprised two tendencies — the hardliners who opposed the proposal in principle, including Edmund Samarakkody, Bala Tampoe, Meryl Fernando, V Karalasingham, RS Baghavan and Prins Rajasooriya; and the waverers, including Colvin R de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, Doric de Souza and Bernard Soysa.
As Mrs Bandaranaike won a majority in the elections in July 1960, she did not want the LSSP in her government. But the LSSP did not proceed along a straight line to form a coalition government with the SLFP in June 1964. After the army attacked the Satyagrahis of the SLFP at the Jaffna Kachcheri premises in 1961, and the 1961 budget attacked the masses, the LSSP leadership took an oppositional stance in relation to the government. Recognising that ‘in the context of Ceylon politics, the attainment of power through a parliamentary election is a possibility’, the leadership proceeded to form a United Left Front in 1963 with the Communist Party and Philip Gunawardena’s MEP, ostensibly to struggle against the SLFP government. But when the government was seriously weakened in 1964 and its very existence became doubtful, and Mrs Bandaranaike prorogued parliament for four months and sought to enlist the left-wing leaders in her government, both NM Perera and Philip Gunawardena attempted separately to enter the government. Perera succeeded, and the ULF broke up; moreover, the Joint Council of Trade Union Organisations, under which the entire trade union movement had mobilised for struggle on a 21-point programme, was torpedoed. The LSSP’s position of parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil as state languages had already been changed when the ULF was formed. Perera accepted three portfolios, and formed a coalition with the SLFP. Bernard was with the leadership in these moves. The only difference he had with Perera was that along with Colvin, Leslie and Doric, he wanted the entire ULF to go into the coalition.
Bernard fully supported the second coalition government that was formed in May 1970 between the SLFP, the LSSP and the Communist Party. In the meantime, he had been appointed Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament during the first coalition of 1964; he continued in this post during the United National Party’s government of 1965-70 and the coalition government of 1970-77, a tenure of 13 years. In the second coalition, he acted for NM Perera as Minister of Finance on several occasions when the latter was out of the island, but he would not be Deputy Minister of Finance.
In August 1994, he was elected to parliament as an LSSP member of the People’s Alliance, and was made Minister of Science and Technology and Human Resources Development. Speaking as a minister at the fiftieth anniversary session of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science in 1994, he called himself an ‘unrepentant Socialist’ forced to come to terms with the profit motive.
With his knowledge of Marxism and his command of both English and Sinhala, it should have been a relatively easy task for Bernard to put pen to paper. But he hardly ever wrote! He did, however, contribute an article to the festschrift volume for Professor EFC ‘Lyn’ Ludowyke in 1984, entitled ‘EFC Ludowyke and the Political Changes of 50 Years’. He said:
‘Lyn rejected the coalition perspective the LSSP followed first in 1964 and then in 1970. He disliked in particular the communal politics of the major party in the coalition, the SLFP. In the Modern History, he writes with bitterness about what he considers to be an unhappy change. He did not accept the need for such coalitions, but his friendship with the LSSP remained unbroken. The LSSP’s view is that the results in the long term have a value despite the price that had to be paid. These events, of course, await the judgement of history.’
For those who had eyes to see, 1977 showed the results of five years of the practice of Popular Front politics. It was an eye-opener, as the LSSP was reduced to nought in the parliamentary elections of 1977. In most electorates, including LSSP strongholds, the SLFP, taking second place, beat the LSSP into third place. More than that, the working class and the toilers were completely disoriented, and the party lost the militant trade union base which was its sheet-anchor. It is worth recalling that in his introduction to Karalasingham’s Politics of Coalition, Ernest Mandel predicted:
‘Experience will confirm, once again, that far from “stopping reaction” by joining a coalition government with the liberal bourgeoisie, the LSSP right wing probably only laid the ground for a huge electoral victory of the UNP. It will confirm that far from introducing Socialism “piecemeal”, the coalition government systematically will have to disarm and oppose the working class’ defence of its immediate and historical interests. Far from “uniting the left”, coalition creates disillusion, demoralisation and disorientation among the masses, the first result of it being already a big setback to the important move towards trade union unity which had marked the past period.’
From being an indefatigable crusader in the onward march for revolutionary Socialism, Bernard became a conscious participant in the bourgeois parliamentary-democratic process. Two tributes paid to him after his demise by right-wing intellectuals reflect significantly the rôle he played in the second period of his political life. Neelan Thisuchelvam, a constitutional lawyer and Tamil United Liberation Front MP, said:
‘Comrade Bernard was a consummate parliamentarian who enriched our institutions of political representation at the local government, provincial and national levels. He acquired a mastery of public finance, he refashioned the Public Accounts Committee, which he dominated for decades. He refined the principles of financial accountability, and made an enormous contribution to improving the quality and accuracy of our public accounts.’
Gamani Corea, a Sri Lankan economist and former Secretary-General of UNCTAD, said:
‘For me, Bernard Soysa was the model of the ideal politician and public figure, combining erudition, high principles and qualities of leadership. He had confidence in his values irrespective of the swings of the political pendulum.’
One can have respect for what people like Bernard did in the early part of their lives, but the fact remains that by abandoning the programme on which they built the party in order to reform the capitalist order, ‘to introduce Socialism step by step’, they undid what they had done, and caused a set-back to the movement they had built. They belong to a long line of renegades, starting with the French right-wing Social Democrat Millerand, who participated in a ‘liberal’ bourgeois government in 1898, in order to ‘defend the republic’ that was threatened by clerical and military reaction, through the German Social Democratic leaders who joined the Kaiser’s government during the First World War, to Philip Gunawardena, NM Perera, Colvin R de Silva and Leslie Goonewardene, to name just some.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the onset of privatisation and liberalisation, and the party of the liberal bourgeoisie adopting the programme of the more right-wing capitalist party, as in Sri Lanka, left-wing leaders who join the government become so impotent that they are unable to influence government policy even in a small way to prevent the privatisation of a nationalised industry, not to speak of influencing the government to make it change course.
. The University College prepared students for London University examinations, both intermediate and final. The only one of its kind on the island at the time, it became a fully-fledged university in 1941.
. The elder brother of V Karalasingham. He was killed in 1944 after being knocked down by a military vehicle.
. Party members jokingly referred to the morning session as Bernard’s OPD — Out-Patients’ Department! When Bernard was elected to parliament in 1956, from the beginning he made impressive speeches, and the Speaker enquired what he was. Other LSSP MPs told the Speaker that he was a petition-writer!
. Letter to the Editor, Island, 22 January 1998.
. Lyn Ludowyke was a supporter of the LSSP. His wife Edith had been a member of it since 1953. They attended the LSSP’s congress in 1953 at which William Silva and others broke away. In London, they maintained a happy and fruitful friendship with Isaac and Tamara Deutscher.
. In the 1977 elections, the UNP won 140 seats out of the 168 seats in parliament.
. Island, 6 January 1998.
. Daily News, 5 January 1998