Leon Trotsky
Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Sri Lanka)

Formal independence in Sri Lanka

10-1. The British decision to grant self-government to Sri Lanka was not the product of any popular campaign waged by the Ceylon National Congress. As a result of its pivotal strategic position in the Indian Ocean, the island became the headquarters for the Allied South East Asian Command during World War II. D.S Senanayake, as leader of the Board of Ministers, used the CNC’s fulsome support for the war to haggle behind closed doors for post-war self-government. Senanayake and his colleagues never set their sights higher than Dominion status—that is, a junior partner to British imperialism in which London would still determine the island’s overall foreign and defence policies. Senanayake’s chief aim in the negotiations was to preserve the political domination of the Sinhala elites in any settlement. He did not object to Britain’s overall control of foreign policy, but insisted that Sri Lanka had to be in charge of negotiations with India over the fate of the island’s Tamil speaking plantation workers. When London established the Soulbury Commission in 1944 to map out a new constitution, Senanayake objected to its members holding discussions with the representatives of Tamils and Muslims. After the Soulbury Commission recommended limited self-government but delayed even Dominion status, Senanayake and the CNC leaders voted, in September 1945, to accept the report.

10-2. The BLPI leaders in Sri Lanka emerged from prison with considerable prestige as the only political figures who had opposed the war and campaigned for independence. However, the opportunist orientation elaborated by Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera during the war quickly manifested itself in an open split in the party. Gunawardena and Perera refused to accept the authority of the BLPI’s regional committee in Sri Lanka and formed their own party, using the pre-war name—the LSSP. The party reverted to the LSSP’s 1941 program for Ceylon and repudiated all documents and decisions made by the BLPI at and after its founding in 1942. Gunawardena and Perera opened the doors of the LSSP to ex-members and renegades and sought alliances with various bourgeois formations. The LSSP declared itself “for the Fourth International” but made no effort to seek affiliation. The nationalist orientation of the LSSP marked a fundamental break from Trotskyism and a return to the pre-war petty bourgeois radicalism of Samasamajism. In a 1947 statement entitled “The Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India: A Sectarian Dead-end,” Gunawardena made clear that he regarded the whole BLPI project and Trotskyism as nothing but a failed romantic adventure.

10-3. A resolution of the BLPI Central Committee in India expelling Gunawardena and Perera concluded that “the split is no accidental phenomenon but the clear manifestation of a non-proletarian tendency which has developed under the pressure of petty bourgeois forces.... The differences today clearly visible on the plane of organisation, are bound to develop on the plane of politics.” A tentative reunification in 1946 rapidly collapsed, underlining the fundamental character of the political differences.

10-4. The BLPI (Ceylon unit) and the LSSP played the leading role in the militant strike movements that emerged after the war, undermining the influence of the Communist Party that had used its position as wartime strikebreaker for the British to build a trade union apparatus. A general strike that erupted in August 1946 with a stoppage by clerical bank workers, spread to other sections of the working class over the next two months and compelled the British governor to accede to some of the workers’ economic demands. The strikers also made the political demand for independence from British rule. The CNC ministers, who were deeply hostile to any concessions to the working class, violated the terms of the 1946 settlement provoking a second general strike in May–June 1947 that was met with violent repression. Thousands of government and private sector workers were victimised and lost their jobs. The government rammed through a Public Security Bill in the final days of the strike, giving sweeping powers to the police.

10-5. In June 1947, in the wake of the strike, the British government announced that the island would be granted full Dominion status—in line with India and Burma. As one historian put it: “At Whitehall, there was a clear understanding that Senanayake and the [CNC] moderates were facing increasing pressure from left-wing forces, apart from other critics, and that the immediate grant of Dominion status was now an urgent necessity as a means of ensuring their political survival.”[1] In the State Council elections later in 1947, the newly formed United National Party (UNP) established by Senanayake from the CNC and other bourgeois organisations won a plurality and formed a coalition government. The LSSP and BLPI each won a significant number of seats.

10-6. The LSSP’s opportunist adaptation to the Sinhala bourgeoisie became immediately apparent in its manoeuvring to form a ruling parliamentary coalition under the leadership of the United National Party (UNP) politician S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Bandaranaike had headed the Sinhala Maha Sabha, formed in 1919 to unite the majority Sinhalese on an explicitly racial and religious basis. In 1939, Colvin R. de Silva warned that the Sinhala Maha Sabha was “a dangerously reactionary body” that had the potential to become “a local variant of brown Fascism”[2] The LSSP’s efforts to back a ruling coalition under Bandaranaike were the first steps in a dangerous trend to dress up Sinhala populism as a progressive alternative to the UNP. The LSSP’s manoeuvring fell apart after the BLPI refused to participate in this reactionary charade.

10-7. The fundamental differences in the class orientation of the BLPI and LSSP were even starker over the issue of “independence” during the British handover on February 4, 1948. In a powerful statement entitled “Independence Real or Fake” issued on the day, BLPI leader Colvin R. de Silva declared that the masses of Ceylon had nothing to rejoice about in the “independence” celebrations. “For the new status of their obtaining is not ‘independence’ but actually a refashioning of the chains of Ceylon’s slavery to British imperialism. It is a continuation of British imperialism’s method of exercising that rule ... Only fools would contend that there is ‘no change’ in Ceylon’s ‘status’. There is a change. But the essence of this change lies not in any passage of Ceylon from colonial status to the status of independence, but in the change-over of British imperialism in Ceylon from methods of direct rule to methods of indirect rule.”[3] The BLPI not only voted against the government’s motion on independence in the parliament; it organised a mass rally of around 50,000 on Galle Face Green in central Colombo in opposition to the official ceremonies. The LSSP, by contrast, declared “independence” a limited step forward, abstained on the vote in parliament and refused to attend the BLPI rally, which it denounced as “exhibitionism, ultra-leftism and adventurism” by “parlour Bolsheviks.”

10-8. The anti-democratic character of the “independence” settlement reached between British imperialism and the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie became apparent in one of the first actions of the UNP government—its decision to pass laws that stripped the vast majority of Tamil-speaking plantation workers of their basic rights as citizens. The BLPI unequivocally opposed the anti-democratic legislation. In a speech in August 1948, Colvin R. de Silva declared that the assumption that “the state must be coeval with the nation and the nation with the race” was “an outmoded idea and an exploded philosophy.” He continued: “It is precisely under Fascism that the nation was to be made coeval with the race, and race the governing factor in the composition of the state ... If this Government approaches this question from the angle of the capitalist class, our party—we of the Fourth International—approach this question from the angle of the proletariat—the working class. That is to say, we approach it from a class angle independent of racial questions and above racial questions. We are not ready as amongst the labouring population of this country to distinguish between man and man on the ground of his racial origin. We say a worker is, first and foremost, a worker.” Significantly, the Tamil elites of the North and East of the island, represented by the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), demonstrated their class allegiance, in opposition to the rights of the Tamil-speaking plantation workers, by voting for the bill. An ACTC minority opposed the legislation and split to form the Federal Party.

10-9. The BLPI’s far-sighted analysis of the character of the post-war independence settlements, based as it was on Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution, has stood the test of time. While the United States supplanted Britain as the predominant imperialist power, and the existence of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China allowed some room for manoeuvre, the newly “independent” bourgeois states in Asia and Africa remained subordinate to imperialism and the post-war economic framework established by the United States. The ability of leaders such as India’s Nehru, Indonesia’s Sukarno, Egypt’s Nasser and Tanzania’s Nyerere to posture as “anti-imperialists” or “socialists” depended firstly on uncritical support from the Soviet or Chinese Stalinists, and secondly the policies of national economic regulation—import substitution, limited nationalisations and economic planning. The illusory character of independence was to become apparent with the end of the post-war boom and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system that had sustained national reformist policies. As in India and Sri Lanka, the national bourgeoisie in country after country has proved incapable of carrying out basic democratic tasks. The borders have remained those that were established by the former colonial rulers, whose economic interests have continued to be protected, cutting across pre-existing ethno-linguistic and cultural ties. Within the new states, the ruling cliques have invariably based themselves on the anti-democratic dominance of one ethnic, tribal or religious group at the expense of others.


K.M. de Silva, A History of Sri Lanka (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981) p. 460.


Britain, World War 2 and the Sama Samajists (Colombo: Young Socialist Publication, 1996) p. 63.


Blows against the Empire, p. 127.