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

The RCL, the WRP and the national question

22-1. The RCL’s stance on the national question had, since its inception, been based on the principles of proletarian internationalism as developed through Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution. The party consistently fought against all forms of nationalism, communalism and racism in order to unite workers on a class basis. It courageously opposed the increasingly blatant forms of official communal discrimination against Tamils and defended their democratic rights. As early as 1970, the RCL called for the withdrawal of troops sent to the island’s North and would continue to do so throughout the war. Apart from the Tamil bourgeois parties, the RCL was alone in opposing the chauvinist 1972 constitution. When the RCL faction in the government press union proposed a motion, which was passed, opposing the constitution, LSSP officials carried out a witch-hunt against party supporters.

22-2. Amid the growing radicalisation of Tamil youth, the RCL declared in June 1972: “We Marxists recognise the right of the Tamil nation to self-determination. At the same time, we emphasise that this right can only be won by mobilising the Sinhalese and Tamil workers for the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ government based on socialist policies and recognising this very same right.”[1] In line with Lenin’s writings on the national question, the RCL was not advocating a separate Tamil state, but rather defending the right of Tamils to do so. The policy was a means of exposing the duplicity of bourgeois Tamil politicians and winning Tamil workers and youth to a socialist perspective for Sri Lanka and the Indian subcontinent as a whole.

22-3. However, at a meeting of the ICFI in 1972, the SLL leadership vehemently opposed the RCL’s stance. Banda argued that support for the Tamils’ right to self-determination would help the plans of the imperialists to carve up the island. Like his support for the Indian military intervention in East Pakistan in 1971, Banda’s opposition to the RCL was based on accepting the legitimacy of the so-called independent nation states established by imperialism in South Asia in 1947–48. Balasuriya later explained: “The position of the WRP inexorably leads to complete capitulation to the national bourgeoisie and through it to imperialism because its theory was based entirely on the supposed necessity to keep these bourgeois states intact. And since these state structures, without exception, are based on the domination of one nationality—whose bourgeoisie, allied with imperialism, uses brute force to keep the other nationalities in subjugation—the defence of these state structures amounts to the defence of imperialism itself.”[2]

22-4. At that stage, as the Tamil struggle was only in incipient form, the RCL reluctantly bowed to the experience and political authority of the SLL leadership. The RCL continued to staunchly defend the democratic rights of Tamils and fight for the unity of Tamil and Sinhala workers but was hampered by the fact that it was working throughout most of the 1970s without an important tactical weapon. The party had to combat the growing influence of Maoists, whose advocacy of the “armed struggle” was attractive to the radicalised Tamil youth who were hostile to the TULF’s Gandhian tactics. Like the JVP, the Maoists pointed to the treachery of the LSSP ministers in the Bandaranaike government to denounce Trotskyism. Prior to 1977, however, these armed Tamil groups had marginal political significance and were completely sidelined by the preceding mass movement of the working class that drew support from Sinhala and Tamil workers on a class basis.

22-5. In 1979, as the Tamil national liberation struggle achieved international prominence, the WRP made a 180-degree turn. Banda sent a letter of apology to the RCL admitting that the WRP had ignored the importance of the national question in Sri Lanka, but provided no explanation in the letter or subsequently for its belated advocacy of the right to self-determination for Tamils. The WRP’s new line on Sri Lanka was no more based on the Theory of Permanent Revolution than its previous one. It had flipped from opposition to the Tamil national liberation struggle to an uncritical embrace. The WRP’s about-face was bound up with the shift in its class axis following the politically unclarified split with Thornett in 1974. In 1976, as the WRP encountered new political problems associated with the international counteroffensive of the bourgeoisie, it began to turn to other class forces for support—to the Labour and trade union bureaucracy in Britain and to Arab bourgeois regimes in the Middle East.

22-6. In parallel with its unprincipled relations with the Arab bourgeoisie, the WRP established connections with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE was one of the more prominent armed Tamil groups, which included the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS) and later the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). All of the groups had been influenced to one degree or another by Stalinism and Maoism and, like the TULF, declared that their objective was a socialist Tamil Eelam. The WRP assisted the LTTE’s so-called theoretician Anton Balasingham in providing a more sophisticated “socialist” window-dressing for what was a bourgeois program of “national liberation.”

22-7. In 1979 the WRP published Balasingham’s “On the Tamil national question” in its Labour Review and insisted that the RCL do the same. In the hands of Balasingham, Lenin’s writings on the national question in 1913 were turned inside out. Whilst Lenin had insisted that for Marxists the most important consideration in the national question was “the self-determination of the working class,” Balasingham argued that Lenin required Marxists to be uncritical supporters of the separatist aspirations of the Tamil bourgeoisie. The task of the proletarian revolutionary, he declared, was “to support the [Tamil] struggle though it is headed by the bourgeoisie and adopt a strategy to advance the struggle towards national liberation and socialist revolution.” Balasingham’s reference to the “socialist revolution”, devoid of any struggle to unify and mobilise workers independently of the bourgeoisie, was purely decorative. In a 1980 polemic entitled “Towards a Socialist Tamil Eelam”, the LTTE explicitly rejected any turn to the working class, declaring: “Tamil people have had enough of the rotten ideology of unity of the working class and an all-Sri Lankan revolution. A national minority that is under the oppressive clutches of the majority must first fight for its liberation.”

22-8. The RCL continued to fight intransigently to unite Sinhala and Tamil workers around their common class interests. The party carried out extensive campaigns to defend the democratic rights of Tamils and to expose the UNP’s involvement in the 1983 pogroms. But the WRP’s uncritical support for the LTTE prevented any examination by the RCL of the politics of the LTTE and other Tamil armed groups and thus helped to strengthen their influence among Tamil youth. It was only in the aftermath of the 1985-87 split with the WRP that the RCL and the ICFI could re-examine the national question, especially in relation to the experiences of the working class in Sri Lanka.

22-9. The 1983 anti-Tamil pogroms produced a wave of revulsion in India, especially in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi offered to broker peace talks. At the same time, the Indian government covertly authorised military training to the various armed Tamil organisations both to exert control over their activities and to use them as a bargaining chip in its dealings with the Sri Lankan government. All of the Tamil groups promoted illusions in the Indian bourgeoisie as the defenders of Tamils and encouraged greater direct Indian intervention, as had been done in Bangladesh. The Indian Stalinist parties—the CPI and CPM—were directly involved in the Indian government’s machinations, providing “political training” to the Tamil youth under the supervision of Indian intelligence. The exception was the LTTE. It maintained somewhat more distance from the Indian government, but only so as to move more directly into the camp of the regional Tamil bourgeoisie in India and the Sri Lankan Tamil bourgeoisie. The LTTE maintained close ties with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. G. Ramachandran and his bourgeois All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which used the LTTE connection to bolster its own political image. Concerned not to disturb its relations with the LTTE, the WRP opposed the RCL’s efforts to develop the fight for Trotskyism in Tamil Nadu and India.

22-10. During 1983–85, the WRP consciously sought to politically destroy the Sri Lankan section as part of its broader attacks on the International Committee. At the height of the anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983, the News Line published a comment written by Banda that declared: “It is possible and even probable, that the police and the army have used the arbitrary and uncontrolled power granted to them under the emergency laws to kill our comrades and destroy our press.” Writing later, Keerthi Balasuriya denounced the WRP’s callous indifference to the fate of the RCL, explaining: “You did absolutely nothing to mount a campaign in our defence and thus gave advance notice to the UNP government that you will not even lift a finger in the event of the physical destruction of our party. Throughout that period, the RCL defended itself and won the respect of many sections of the working class and the youth, only because we never retreated from the theoretical and political foundations of the ICFI, the world Trotskyist movement. It is precisely this fact which made our party a constant target of political provocation by Healy, Banda and Slaughter.”[3]

22-11. While uncritically supporting the LTTE, the WRP had no compunction about maintaining political relations with a group who had split from the RCL and was attacking it in Sinhala chauvinist terms. The WRP pressed the RCL for a reconciliation with these renegades, which failed, and continued to use their malicious gossip to undermine the RCL. On the basis of the group’s “reports”, Healy and Banda moved for the expulsion of the RCL from the ICFI at its Tenth Congress in 1985. While the expulsion was never carried out, the WRP leaders were clearly out to destroy the RCL and the IC.


Fourth International, Volume 14, No. 1, March 1987, p.54.


Ibid., pp. 54–5.


Fourth International, Volume 14, No. 2, June 1987, p. 111.