The left and the SLFP A Rejoinder to Batty Weerakoon

I must commence with a self-criticism. I had not thought Batty Weerakoon capable of a demonstrable falsehood in print. I was wrong. In his reply to me entitled ‘Bandaranaike and the Hartal’, in The Island Sat Mag (August 16, 2008) he writes: "So much then for DJ’s suggestion that SWRDB led the Hartal…"

Even the most cursory reading of my article would show that I suggested no such thing, nor anything that could be even remotely interpreted as such. Indeed I specifically said that SWRD and the SLFP did not participate in the Hartal but supported it, adding that the Federal Party and the CWC however, participated.

Though Batty Weerakoon says, the rally was not an explicitly pro-Hartal one since that Hartal had not been decided upon, the simple fact that SWRDB chaired the protest rally at Galle Face Green against the subsidy cuts proves my point that he was supportive of the anti-UNP cause of the people.

My argument was that following the Hartal, the LSSP should have attempted to unite in one front or bloc, all those who participated in or supported the Hartal, which would have led to a multiethnic anti-UNP front, with the SLFP in a non-dominant role. I also pointed out that the SLFP of the day stood not for Sinhala Only, but for Sinhala and Tamil as national languages. Had such a front been formed, the SLFP would not have been as susceptible to the Sinhala Only slogan of 1955, as it was.

I had preceded this argument with another one, that the best ever electoral performance of the Left was at the 1947 general elections, and had not Dr Colvin R de Silva derided as a three headed donkey, the idea of a coalition of the combined Left and the independent nationalists and progressives, as mooted by Sri Nissanka at his Yamuna residence, a far more progressive government may have ensued at Independence—one which did not disenfranchise the Hill Country people and catalyze the breakaway of SJV Chelvanayagam and the launch of the Federalist project.

Let me press home a point I raised in passing in my article. The most enlightened stand on the ethnic issue taken by a mainstream party in modern Sri Lanka was that of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) in 1944-47, as evidenced by its submissions to the Soulbury Commission. That CNC contained the Communist party. The decision to break up the CNC and form the UNP instead was perhaps the first step that led us to where we are in the domain of inter-ethnic relations. That descent could have been arrested and reversed had the Left and the independents formed a coalition government after the 1947 elections—but that possibility was vetoed by the LSSP.

How did the LSSP fare, following this decision? In comparison with the General Election of 1947, the LSSP went on to fare poorly at the next election in 1952.

Batty Weerakoon attempts to contradict my point that the Left did not push to its limits the potentialities of the Hartal. He asserts that the UNP did not abdicate as such, but evacuated itself to the USS Newfoundland, leaving the armed forces and Police to cold bloodedly and bloodily suppress the uprising. He fails to see that confirms my argument: any government that takes itself off to an American vessel, and leaves only the repressive apparatus to do its job, has de-legitimized itself while leaving a vacuum of governance, which any Left worth its salt would have seen as a chance to press ahead with a successful popular uprising.

The quotations that Mr. Weerakoon produces prove the point more starkly than I could. Here is Dr Colvin R de Silva as cited by Mr. Weerakoon:

"The August 1953 uprising is the first mass uprising in Ceylon’s history against Ceylonese capitalist rule. It is the first mass uprising in Ceylon’s history which bears the imprint of the worker-peasant alliance; the instrument of Ceylon’s national liberation and social emancipation. It is the first great uprising in Ceylon which points the way to the mass seizure of power and the emergence of the Workers and Peasant Government."

And here is Dr NM Perera on the same topic, as quoted in the same article by the same Mr. Weerakoon:

"I can assure him [the Prime Minister] that as far as we are concerned we had a one day Hartal and that is over."

If we may paraphrase Winston Churchill, never in the field of class conflict, has so significant a mass uprising in the country’s history as described and defined by Dr Colvin R de Silva, been wound up so perfunctorily as in Dr NM Perera’s perfectly accurate and succinct description of events: "…as we are concerned we had a one day Hartal and that is over."

Over it certainly was. What was to follow? An anti UNP centre-Left bloc was not fought for in the post Hartal situation. In 1957, when SWRD Bandaranaike wrested himself free from the forces of Sinhala chauvinism and signed the Pact with SJV Chelvanagayam, and was soon besieged by those forces, both belonging to the UNP as well as to lobbies close the ruling coalition, where was the Left? Had it thrown its weight behind SWRD, the chauvinists could have been isolated, B-C Pact could have been saved and a re-composition of forces effected, creating a Centre-Left bloc. Sri Lanka’s tragic contemporary history would conceivably have been avoided.

The LSSP did indeed form a front with the SLFP, but this was a time and in a manner that the SLFP was very much in command. I refer to 1964. The LSSP broke the reunified Left coalition which had won the Borella by election, beating both UNP and SLFP, and plunged into a coalition with the SLFP, leaving behind its Left partners, whose inclusion in a united front with the SLFP would have given the Left a greater weight in relation to the nationalist Centre.

The grand finale was of course in 1970-77. The LSSP was in charge of managing the economy and drafting a constitution. Living standards plummeted with semi-malnutrition appearing for the first time since independence. People were seen rummaging through garbage bins and eating papaya skins. Dr Colvin R de Silva proudly drafted a Constitution which was rightly Republican but removed Section 29, the anti-discrimination safeguard, and constitutionally enthroned Sinhala Only which it had opposed decades earlier. The LSSP took years to object (mildly) to media-wise and district-wise standardization in university admission. The year of the promulgation of Colvin’s Constitution was the year of the founding of the Tamil New Tigers (TNT). The Federal party became the Tamil United Liberation Front and adopted the Vadukkodai Resolution. The Tamil electorate which wiped out separatists at the general elections of 1970, voted in the North (though not the East) for separatism at the next elections in 1977. At the election of 1977, the country as a whole threw the LSSP out of Parliament.

Nowhere in the history of South Asian or international Marxism is such a performance observable. From the perspective of comparative left politics, the LSSP is indeed quite singular, and mercifully so.

[Dayan Jayatilleka, PhD, is Senior Lecturer in Political Science and author of Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2007. This article contains his personal views.]

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