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

The LSSP’s response to the Open Letter

13-1. The LSSP’s refusal to support the SWP and the ICFI in opposing Pabloite opportunism was the turning point in its history and greatly accelerated its political degeneration. While critical of Pablo’s pro-Stalinist orientation, the LSSP leadership strongly sympathised with the underlying liquidationist orientation that sanctioned its own adaptation to national reformist politics—a combination of parliamentarism and trade union syndicalism. Both parliament and the trade unions are hostile arenas that the revolutionary party is obliged to use to fight for its perspective but inevitably they place strong pressures on the party to adapt to reformist illusions in the working class. Although still espousing Trotskyism in word, the LSSP leaders increasingly came to measure their success in terms of the number of their parliamentary seats and the size of their trade unions. They viewed parliamentary combinations and strikes around limited economic demands, rather than the independent political mobilisation of the working class, as the path to socialism.

13-2. The consequences of the LSSP’s opportunist orientation had already been demonstrated in the events of August 1953—a major crisis for bourgeois rule on the island. In the 1952 general election, the UNP had won a convincing majority, the unified LSSP had lost seats and a new party—the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) formed by S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike in 1951 made its first modest showing. Within a year, however, the UNP government all but collapsed under the impact of a semi-insurrectionary movement of the working class and peasantry provoked by government measures to stem the economic crisis created by the end of the Korean War. The LSSP, supported by the Communist Party, the VLSSP and the Federal Party, called a one-day hartal—a general strike and closure of businesses—on August 12 to protest against price rises. The response took all of the parties, including the LSSP, by surprise. The strike brought Colombo to a halt and protests spread through the rural areas of the south and west. In many areas protesters defied police violence, blocked roads and tore up railway tracks. A panicked UNP government met on a British warship in Colombo harbour, declared a state of emergency, called out the military, sealed the offices and press of working-class parties and imposed a curfew. Nine people were shot dead by police in protests that continued for two more days.

13-3. Subsequent LSSP mythology has seized on the 1953 hartal to demonstrate the party’s revolutionary character. In reality, the LSSP provided no leadership to the mass movement. It failed to take such elementary steps as to issue a call for action committees in factories, suburbs and villages to prosecute the campaign and for workers defence guards against state repression. Instead the LSSP leaders joined the CP and VLSSP in calling for an end to the hartal, leaving those who continued to protest to face state violence alone. In a lengthy article, Colvin R. de Silva declared the hartal to be a new stage of the class struggle that bore “the imprint of the worker-peasant alliance.” But he concluded that the fight was now “to compel the UNP government to resign and hold a fresh general election.” The LSSP had all along viewed the hartal as nothing more than an adjunct to its parliamentary manoeuvring. As a result Bandaranaike was able to capitalise on the mass opposition sentiment and to gain influence, particularly among the Sinhala rural masses disillusioned by the lack of LSSP leadership. Bandaranaike’s political rise was further cemented when the LSSP backed his no-confidence motion in the UNP government. Shocked by the scope of the hartal, significant sections of the Sri Lankan ruling elite swung their support behind the SLFP as an alternate means for propping up capitalist rule. While he had opposed the protests and his SLFP did not participate, the hartal was the making of Bandaranaike as a pivotal figure for the Sri Lankan ruling class.

13-4. In the wake of the Hartal, the clamour inside the LSSP for “left unity” with the Stalinist CP and VLSSP intensified. After the 1952 election, a tendency had emerged that blamed the party’s losses on its failure to reach a no-contest pact with the CP and VLSSP, which had demanded the LSSP drop its criticism of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and China. Encouraged by Pablo’s pro-Stalinist line at the Third Congress, the “unity” faction put forward an amendment at the LSSP congress in October 1953 calling for the party to be “friendly unconditionally” to the “socialist countries”. After the amendment was defeated, the pro-Stalinist grouping broke away, its adherents joining either the CP or VLSSP.

13-5. It was in this context that the LSSP leadership responded to the Open Letter. Its rejection of Cannon’s appeal and refusal to join the International Committee were all the more politically criminal as the former BLPI leaders were well aware of the pro-Stalinist character of Pablo’s revisions. Moreover, it had just experienced firsthand the impact of Pabloism in its own ranks. But the LSSP objected in legalistic terms to the manner in which the Open Letter was issued and refused to take a political stand. Cannon wrote to Leslie Goonewardene, noting that the LSSP had expelled its own pro-Stalinist tendency, then pointedly added: “As internationalists, it is obligatory that we take the same attitude toward open or covert manifestations of Stalinist conciliationism in other parties, and in the international movement generally.[1]

13-6. Belatedly, the LSSP Central Committee passed a resolution in April 1954 recognising the far-reaching consequences of Pablo’s claim that Stalinist parties could be pushed onto the revolutionary road by mass pressure. “This concept not only leads to a fundamental revision of the positions of Trotskyism in regard to Stalinism but also denies to the Trotskyist movement all justification for its continued independent existence,” it declared. In practice, however, the LSSP sought to conciliate and manoeuvre to preserve “unity” with the Pabloites, at the expense of political clarification and principle, only compounding the difficulties facing the SWP and ICFI. The LSSP leaders ultimately capitulated to Pabloism. They attended the Pabloite Fourth Congress later in 1954, thus lending it legitimacy, supported its resolutions with minor amendments and remained with the Pabloite International Secretariat. It was the start of a thoroughly opportunist relationship that was to have disastrous consequences for the working class. The LSSP could claim Trotskyist credentials for its reformist politics in the national arena, while the International Secretariat could boast of having “a mass Trotskyist party” in Asia. The LSSP’s support for Pabloism was a terrible blow against Trotskyism and thus the working class, particularly in Asia. If the LSSP, or a section of it, had taken a principled stand, it would have immensely strengthened the International Committee, advanced its work throughout the region, especially in India, and acted as a powerful antidote to the pernicious influence of Maoism.


Emphasis in the original; Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, Volume Two (London: New Park 1974), p. 89.