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

The Great Betrayal in Sri Lanka

16-1. The entry of the LSSP into the government of Madame Sirima Bandaranaike in June 1964 was a watershed in the history of the Fourth International—for the first time a party claiming to be Trotskyist directly entered the service of the bourgeoisie. The political responsibility for the betrayal rested squarely with the United Secretariat (USec) and confirmed all of the SLL’s warnings about the unprincipled reunification of the SWP with the Pabloites just a year before. The leader of the British SLL, Gerry Healy, explained that the LSSP’s betrayal was “the most complete example” of betrayal by Pablo, Mandel and Pierre Frank. “These people must take responsibility, since they have been in constant communication with the LSSP in Ceylon, for the past 18 years. The answer [to the question of the LSSP’s degeneration] lies not in Ceylon, but in an international study of the struggle against Pabloite revisionism. The real architects of the coalition reside in Paris.”[1]

16-2. The road to the LSSP’s entry into the Bandaranaike government—the United Left Front (ULF) of the LSSP with the Stalinist CP and Philip Gunawardena’s MEP—was encouraged and sanctioned by the USec. The International Secretariat had called in 1960 for an electoral front of “working class parties” and the 1963 unification congress declared that the LSSP had “correctly raised the question of a United Left Front, both to arrest the movement to the right and to help these masses to move towards an alternative left.”[2] The ULF, however, was precisely the type of Popular Front that Trotsky had opposed in the 1930s. Moreover, it involved parties with a proven track record of class collaboration—the racist MEP had participated in the 1956 SLFP government and the Stalinist CP had been part of the Ceylon National Congress during the war and would have joined the first UNP government if the UNP had been willing.

16-3. The ULF platform was formally signed on August 12, 1963—the 10th anniversary of the 1953 hartal—amid great professions of working class unity. This opportunist formation had nothing in common with the united front tactic of Trotsky who had insisted on the political independence of the revolutionary party and no mixing of political programs, banners and slogans. The joint ULF platform was not “a genuinely socialist program”, as the Pabloites declared, but a list of limited reforms to be achieved through parliament and within the framework of capitalism. Moreover, the program, which the USec approved, made major concessions to the MEP’s communal politics. Having dropped its demand for parity between the Sinhala and Tamil languages in 1960, the LSSP now agreed to a common platform that vaguely called for the existing Sinhala-only legislation to be made less discriminatory. Within the LSSP Central Committee, a minority led by Edmund Samarakkody correctly condemned the ULF program as popular frontism but did not call for the LSSP to break from the ULF. Samarakkody’s stance was a typical centrist evasion—he was capable of recognising the opportunist character of what was proposed, but not of drawing the necessary political conclusions and breaking with the Perera leadership. The only Trotskyist criticism came from the SLL in Britain which denounced the ULF as opportunist and called on the “hundreds of devoted communists in the LSSP” to reaffirm the “principles and program of the FI and purge the party of revisionism and the revisionist leaders.”[3]

16-4. From its inception in 1960, the SLFP government had been in crisis. In response to widespread protests by Tamils over the Sinhala-only policy, Bandaranaike proscribed the Federal Party and imposed a state of emergency for much of 1961. Amidst a rising strike movement over the government’s austerity measures, the government banned industrial action and deployed the army on the docks. A failed coup attempt by senior police and military officers in January 1962 reflected fears in sections of the ruling class about Bandaranaike’s ability to contain the working class. Strikes were given further impetus by the formation of the Joint Committee of Trade Unions Organisation (JCTUO) in September 1963 unifying all unions, including those of plantation workers, around 21 common demands. A 69-day strike by the LSSP’s Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) defied a government ultimatum to return to work and forced significant concessions by January 1964. Uncertain of her parliamentary majority, Bandaranaike prorogued parliament in February.

16-5. With her cabinet in crisis over how to deal with the mass working-class movement, Bandaranaike opened talks with the ULF parties. On March 21, as LSSP leaders were addressing a huge rally of the 21-demands movement on Galle Face Green, including large contingents of plantation workers, N.M. Perera held secret discussions with Bandaranaike over the formation of a coalition government. When the talks became public knowledge, Bandaranaike, a class-conscious representative of the bourgeoisie, justified her actions by openly explaining the various options: “Some feel that these [strike] troubles can be eliminated by the establishment of a dictatorship. Others say that the workers should be made to work at the point of gun and bayonet. Still others maintain that a national government should be formed to solve this problem. I have considered these ideas separately and in the context of world events. My conclusion is that none of these solutions will help to get us where we want to go … Therefore, gentlemen, I decided to initiate talks with the leaders of the working class, particularly Mr. Philip Gunawardena and Mr. N.M. Perera.”[4]

16-6. The LSSP rightwing led by Perera, supported by the so-called “centre” faction led by Colvin R. de Silva and Leslie Goonewardene, hurriedly convened a party conference for June 6–7 to authorise a coalition with the SLFP. Gerry Healy, who flew to Colombo on behalf of the ICFI, was barred from entering the conference, but campaigned vigorously outside. Inside, the resolution moved by Perera justified the betrayal by arguing that the SLFP was not a capitalist party, but “a party based on the radical petty-bourgeoisie and the lower middle class” that “had shed some of the more reactionary elements” and carried out “various measures for nationalisation.” While these declarations were a complete negation of everything that Trotsky had written on political formations such as the Kuomintang in China, they were fully in line with the Pabloite glorification of the petty-bourgeois leaderships in Cuba and Algeria. The resolution also made clear that the LSSP leadership had completely capitulated to the SLFP’s communalism—the list of 10 policies agreed upon with Bandaranaike did not refer to the language or citizenship issues. The resolution of the “centre” laid bare the political and moral collapse of the former BLPI revolutionaries—de Silva and Goonewardene. Their only “difference” with Perera was the terms of surrender to the SLFP—the coalition government, they argued, should include the other ULF parties, not just the LSSP.

16-7. The resolution of the newly-formed Revolutionary Minority unambiguously condemned the proposed coalition government as “treachery to the proletarian revolution”, stating: “The entry of the LSSP leaders into the SLFP government will result in open class collaboration, disorientation of the masses, the division of the working class and the abandonment of the struggle perspective, which will lead to the disruption of the working class movement and the elimination of the independent revolutionary axis of the Left. In the result, the forces of capitalist reaction, far from being weakened or thwarted, will be ultimately strengthened.” After the vote—501 for Perera’s resolution, 75 for the “centre” and 159 for the opposition—the Revolutionary Minority faction left the conference, met separately and formed what became the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Revolutionary) or LSSP (R).

16-8. The USec played a thoroughly opportunist role throughout. In April, that is weeks before the conference, it had been declaring that the ULF in Sri Lanka could “provide another Cuba or Algeria and prove to be even greater inspiration to revolutionary minded workers throughout the world.”[5] When news of Perera’s negotiations with Bandaranaike reached Paris, the USec scrambled to cover up its own political responsibility by calling for a return to the ULF. But Healy aptly summed up the ULF as “the sugar coating for the bitter pill of coalition”—it was the political stepping stone used by Perera into the Bandaranaike government. There was no fundamental difference between the ULF program and the LSSP’s deal with Bandaranaike. The USec expelled N.M. Perera and two others, who became ministers in the SLFP government, suspended those LSSP members who voted for his motion, but took no action for months, against the so-called “centre”, which remained within the LSSP.

16-9. The USec suppressed criticism within its ranks of the LSSP betrayal. Inside the American SWP, supporters of the ICFI led by Tim Wohlforth, who constituted an official minority, were suspended from membership for insisting on an internal party discussion on the LSSP’s entry into the Bandaranaike government—an unprecedented event in the history of the Fourth International. The minority, which had fought alongside the SLL since 1961 against the SWP’s reunification with the Pabloites, formed the American Committee for the Fourth International, which was transformed into the Workers League in November 1966.

16-10. In a statement issued in July 1964, the ICFI drew the following far-sighted conclusion: “The entry of the LSSP members into the Bandaranaike coalition marks the end of a whole epoch of the evolution of the Fourth International. It is in the direct service of imperialism, in the preparation of a defeat for the working class that revisionism in the world Trotskyist movement has found its expression.”[6]


Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, Volume Four (London: New Park, 1974), p. 225.


Gerry Healy, “Ceylon, the Great Betrayal,” Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, Volume Four, pp. 233–4.


“The Newsletter,” cited in Y. Ranjith Amarasinghe, Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics (Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 1998), p. 261.


Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, Volume Four, p. 241.


Ibid., p. 235.


Ibid., p. 255.