Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Socialist Struggle in Sri Lanka

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday May 1 2011.

There used to be a series of ads on British TV for a range of do-it-yourself products. An actor playing the role of a horny-handed son of toil would fix the viewer with a surly gaze and, thrusting a can of varnish at the camera, intone menacingly: “It does just what it says on the tin!”

I recently bought a book titled Struggle for Socialism: The Role of the Communist Party in Sri Lanka edited by Wiswa Warnapala. It does not do what it says on the cover.

As someone with leftish inclinations who has chosen to make his home in Sri Lanka, I am interested in the part played in this island nation by various sections of the left. I paid good money for this book, as I believed it would enlighten me. It did not.

The book is a strange production altogether. It is difficult to establish how Professor Warnapala has “edited” it in any normal sense of the term. The book is riddled with typos and spelling mistakes – a blurred photo of Peter Keuneman is captioned “Peter Kenuman.” Although the professor gives the ritual thanks to his typist and publisher, they have not done him any favours. Does no one employ a proofreader anymore?

The professor states that pamphlets and tracts produced by leading figures in the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) “constituted an important part of the political literature of the country.” That may well be true, but it is not helpful to just deposit steaming chunks of this stuff between the covers of a book and leave it to readers to sort it all out.

Pages 41 to 608 are a mess. For example, do we really need to know CPSL receipts and expenditure for 1965?

Professor Warnapala thanks various members of the Communist Party, such as DEW Gunasekera, for helping him locate the material. He does not give us any guidance on the material – there are no notes, no index, no information about when the material was first written or published. There is no afterword setting the whole thing in context and explaining the relevance of the CPSL today.

“As a party of the Government and the  Opposition, the Communist Party played an effective role in Sri Lankan politics from the point of view of its ideology. It is this fundamental aspect which needs discussion.” It is not discussed in any depth throughout the book, although Professor Warnapala provides a workmanlike, if repetitive, introduction.


‘Not much seems to have changed’


Although the book purports to be a collection of “essays” by Dr SA Wickremasinghe, MG Mendis, Pieter Keuneman and P Kandiah, these are not essays in any normal sense of the term. Most of the Kandiah material is a long extract from Hansard recording what he had to say about the language issue in 1956. This does indicate that Kandiah was a better parliamentarian than today’s crop, but it is not an essay. Dr Wickremasinghe has some interesting things to say about how the UNP’s economic plans immediately after independence maintained what the colonial power put in place.

Not much seems to have changed today: “Our capitalists … have engaged, not in production, but in the provision of services. Small men that they are, they lack skill, vision experience and prosper only so long as those on whom they depend also prosper. The soil in which they grow is the soil prepared by the alien exploiter for his own benefit.”
Wickremasinghe makes good points about how the monoculture of tea took up land that could have been more productive if used to grow food or provide pasture, and about deforestation and soil erosion, which leads to excessive flooding. He does not link this with the role of the CPSL.
The British satirical magazine Private Eye has been bursting bubbles of pomposity since the early 60s. One of the Eye’s great comic creations is the all-purpose lefty agitator Dave Spart.

Spartism has entered the English language. The Urban Dictionary defines a Spartist as: “An individual who observes Marxist theory to the exclusion of all else. Often condemns most things in society and the world with meaningless far left-wing dogma, and often ends up in logical cycles and jumping to conclusions in the process. Such people claim to be progressive, but are as backward thinking, unimaginative, hare-brained and colourless as the leaders of the former Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe.”

There is a lot of Spartism in this book. One should beware of feeling superior to Dr Wickremasinghe from our vantage point in 2011. Even in the 1970s, clever western academics like Joan Robinson and C Wright Mills were telling us that capitalism was dead and that China and Cuba had established utopias that other countries should copy. Today, we know that millions died because of Mao’s insane schemes like the Great Leap Forward.


Dr Wickremasinghe might not be expected to know about this in the 1950s. However, he should have known enough about Stalin’s crimes to prevent himself writing: “the magnificent and immortal leader of progressive mankind, JV Stalin laid bare the basic economic law of capitalism in its decaying, imperialist stage…This brilliant and profound definition of Stalin helps us to find out the basic reasons for the present economic plight of Ceylon.”


Khrushchev ousted Stalin in 1956 but the USSR continued to do dirty deeds. As we watch events unfold in the Middle East, let us not forget that the Soviet Union brutally put down revolts in East Germany (1953), Poland (1956), Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1978).


The role of the Communist Party


Pieter Keuneman bizarrely states: “On the global scale, the Regan (sic) administration still adheres to the dangerous illusion that it can attain military superiority over socialism and break the parity between the USSR and the USA.” He mocks US leaders who sought to “roll back communism.” Only two years later, the USSR was defunct. This does not say much for Keuneman’s political acumen or foresight.

What then was the role of the Communist Party in Sri Lanka? Back to Professor Warnapala’s introduction. “It was the Communist party which consistently campaigned and fought for left unity.” Professor Warnapala quotes historian Kumari Jayawardene as saying that the country needed a political party that could give leadership to the anti-imperialistic struggle and the working class movement.


However, it was the LSSP, not the CP that took on this dual role. The CP was formed in 1943 because some felt the LSSP was too disapproving of Stalinism, veering towards Trotskyism, and placed too much emphasis on social welfare rather than “scientific” economic development.
Professor Warnapala claims that the “electoral agreement of 1960 galvanized all the left progressive forces into a common struggle against the UNP.” This mantra is repeated many times in the introduction – “the Communist Party, which always campaigned for broader unity within the left movement.” Did this campaigning achieve unity on the left?

Full Spart mode

DEW Gunasekera was in full Spart mode when addressing the 19th Congress of the CPSL in September 2010. “We salute the ruling Communist Parties of China, Vietnam, Cuba, Korea, Laos for their ideological contribution against neo-liberalism and for their significant achievements enhancing their national strength and international prestige… We must strengthen our base – the Working Class Base. We must protect our social base. We must sharpen the ideological struggle against neo-liberalism… Though Socialism is a long-term perspective, we must relentlessly carry forward our struggle to defend and promote Socialism. We must strengthen our fraternal relations with the Left forces at Regional and International level. Long Live the Communist Party of Sri Lanka!”

This is the man who, after opposing the 18th Amendment, voted for it and joined the government. This is the man who, in February 2011, he said the country had been failed by politicians over corruption. “All of us should be ashamed. There is an urgent need to take remedial action to restore confidence in the public sector.”


The Colonial Project- how did my family benefit from plunder?

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday February 27 2011

Last week Malinda Seneviratne took issue with Juliet Coombe about racism and imperialism. He also referred to the publication by Juliet’s company of Marlon Ariyasinghe’s poetry collection Froteztology. I have read some of Malinda’s own poetry and, on the strength of that, I respect his judgement enough to want to read Marlon’s work. I am working on my own poetry collection with the provisional title of The Toxicity of Taxonomy. My running themes are the poisonous nature of stereotyping, nationalism and racism and how the inexorable tides of imperialism and other isms drown helpless little people. I’m looking for a publisher, Juliet!

Malinda’s article set me thinking about the fate of individuals in an imperial situation and how distinctions between oppressors and oppressed are not always clear. It is a complex fate to be a human in an imperial context.

I was born in England but have chosen to be an Irish citizen and a Sri Lankan resident. How have I benefited from Empire? How has my family enjoyed the plunder? My English maternal grandfather and my Irish father both served in the British army when Britain had an Empire. Were they complicit in oppression and plunder?

My own family were from the servant class. My mother’s father, Sam King, was a groom at Berkeley Castle (centuries ago, Edward II had been horribly slain with a red-hot poker at the Castle – Rajpal’s articles about the gay mafia in the UNP reminded me of Edward’s court) and later drove the pony and trap for a doctor on Clarence Street in Gloucester. There he met my grandmother who was a maid, a country girl come to the city for employment, for another doctor. Sam’s service for the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie provided the experience to serve King and country in a cavalry regiment in Palestine during the First World War and during the British Mandate.


I have a collection of postcards he sent home. Mostly he was pleading for tobacco. A few strange photographs were among the postcards. One seems to show a number of Arabs hanging from a gibbet.


As a child I spent many hours in Sam’s company but he mostly sat silently chopping up his Mick McQuaid pipe tobacco or pottering about in his garden. Occasionally, he would say “Don’t despise your old granddad” but we never discussed what happened during his imperial service.


Imperial service certainly did not make him rich. He lived in a modest council house, an island of respectability in a sea of delinquency and squalor. I was scared to walk down his street. His youngest daughter said that he had tried to slit his throat with a razor while drunk on rough cider during the Great Depression.


My father also served in the British army. He was born in County Cork in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising, when a group of poets and intellectuals made a blood sacrifice against British imperialism. He taught me much about “800 years of British oppression”. Cromwell’s 1649-53 campaign remains notorious in Irish popular memory as it was responsible for a huge death toll among the Irish population (40%?). The reason for this was the counter-guerrilla tactics used such as the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement (ethnic cleansing) and killing of civilians. In addition, the whole post-war Cromwellian settlement of Ireland has been characterized as “genocidal”, in that it sought to remove Irish Catholics from the eastern part of the country. Malinda quotes Lasantha David as saying he needs to get over the colonials for stealing his loot and making his great great grandfather cut sugar cane”. As well as stealing Irish land the British also sent, after Cromwell’s depredations, Irishmen to the West Indies to work on the sugar plantations as slaves.

My father instilled in me a love of Ireland and taught me about Irish history and culture. Despite his pride in the country of his birth and his hatred of what the British Empire had done to it, he did not hesitate to volunteer for the British army when it was facing the Nazi threat. He felt grateful to England for giving him work and a wife.

Some might argue that it was a history of British oppression which forced this intelligent and witty man to leave school at 12 and work for a butcher and then to leave his family to make his way in a strange land. The England he found in the 1930s would certainly have seemed strange to an Irishman in his twenties brought up as a devout Catholic with decent moral values. Signs saying “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” were not uncommon. He met my mother when he was a labourer helping to build the council house (number 9 Stanway Road, Coney Hill, not far from the lunatic asylum) that her family were to move into. He struggled to gain acceptance from her family. “He’s Irish. He won’t stick with you”, they warned.

My father made light of his war service in the Pioneer Corps. That was not one of the glamorous regiments. It was the stuff of music-hall humour and was portrayed as a motley collection of ineffectual blokes dredged into the army by the war’s insatiable hunger for bodies, any bodies – clerks, light labourers, intellectuals and incapables, unfit to fight, but fit to prepare the way for or clean up after the proper soldiers. Their job was to tidy up the war.


Michael Young, in his influential book The Rise of the Meritocracy, (1958) took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps.  He claimed that the morale of these ‘hewers and drawers  … these dull-witted men’ was spectacularly increased ‘when the stupid were kept together… and they were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with.’  In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was satirical and his book was a prescient critique of how the cult of IQ measurement would create a dangerously smug ruling class and a profoundly demoralized lower class.

When I was a very small child my father took me to the gasworks where he was employed. I was terrified. It was like a Gustave Doré illustration for a sermon on hell, with huge roaring furnaces dwarfing the men stoking them, coughing in the fumes of coal and coke, stripped to the waist, straining with shovels, their bodies basted like meat.

There were men of all nations, the Irish, Poles and Ukrainians as black as the Jamaicans, men thrown up by the ebbing tide of war, stranded victims of dying empires and dictatorships. There was Jan the Pole who lost his home and his country, first to the Germans and then to the Russians, and walked across Europe to England, dodging the Nazis and the Red Army. Petrenko, the Ukrainian who hated the Russians so much he was proud to boast of being in the infamous Waffen SS. There was Henry, the Jamaican, whose ancestors had been torn from Africa and shipped as property to the Caribbean to make the fortunes of Bristol merchants.

The British oppressed and plundered close to home as well as globally. I struggle to accept that I gained much personally from the plundering oppression of the British Empire. True, I was the recipient of free education and health care and was the first of my family to go to university. Clement Attlee presided over the consolidation of the welfare state as well as the dismantling of the empire.

When I was born, the empire had entered its precipitous decline as a result of the effort of winning the war. Life was grey and grim in post-war Britain. In his book A World to Build, historian David Kynaston brilliantly evoked what life felt like then.

No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no flavoured crisps, no lager, no microwaves, no dishwashers, no Formica, no vinyl, no CDs, no computers, no mobiles, duvets, no Pill, no trainers, no hoodies, no Starbucks. Four Indian restaurants. Shops on every corner, pubs on every corner, cinemas in every street, red telephone boxes, Lyons Corner Houses, trams, trolley buses, steam trains. Woodbines, Craven ‘A’, Senior Service, smoke, smog, Vapex  inhalant. No launderettes, no automatic washing machines, wash every Monday, clothes boiled in a tub, scrubbed on the draining board, rinsed in the sink, put through a mangle hung out to dry. Central heating coke boilers, water geysers, the coal fire, the hearth, the home, chilblains common. Abortion illegal, homosexual relationships illegal, suicide illegal, capital punishment legal. White faces everywhere. Back-to-backs, narrow cobbled streets, Victorian terraces, no high-rises. Arterial roads, suburban semis, the march of the pylon. Austin Sevens, Ford Eights, no seat belts, and Triumph motorcycles with sidecars. A Bakelite wireless in the home, Housewives’ Choice or Workers’ Playtime or ITMA on the air, televisions almost unknown, no programmes to watch, the family eating together. ‘Milk of Magnesia’ Vick Vapour Rub, Friar’s Balsam, Fynnon Salts, Eno’s, Germolene. Suits and hats, dresses and hats, cloth Caps and mufflers, no leisurewear, no ‘teenagers’. Heavy Coins, heavy shoes, heavy suitcases, heavy tweed coats, heavy leather footballs, no unbearable lightness of being. Meat rationed, butter rationed, lard rationed, margarine rationed, sugar rationed, tea rationed, cheese rationed, am rationed, eggs rationed, sweets rationed, soap rationed, clothes rationed. Make do and mend.’

Food rationing continued until my eighth year. Some look back to the 50s with nostalgia, claiming that it was a gentler, more human time before the permissive society drove everyone demented. There may have been good things about that time but it would take a Dante to contrive a hell quite as awful as a dark wet Sunday afternoon in the outer suburbs of a provincial British town in the 1950s.

After the war, after the horrors they had witnessed, many men of my father’s generation opted for the quiet life, while the government tried to make a better job of making a land fit for heroes than had been done after the First World War. My parents were offered a home by the local council. It was a dilapidated Nissen hut that had seen much war service. In the year of my birth, 40,000 people were living in a thousand disused service camps. My father, with characteristic stubbornness, refused it. He also stood his ground and refused a ‘prefab’. ‘Homes fit for heroes’ indeed! He continued to live with my mother’s family in the house that he had helped to build before the war.

In that house I was born.

The flamboyant Churchill jibed at Prime Minister Attlee’s dullness by saying. “An empty taxi pulled up and Mr Attlee got out”. But dullness was what the nation wanted. Dullness was good if it also meant security. The Attlee government provided monetary benefits for the poor, and health care free to all, regardless of circumstances. My parents lived through the austerity years and through to the “never had it so good” days of the MacMillan era. We baby-boomers came of age during those years of relative affluence.  We absorbed the optimism and creativity of the Beatles and the cynicism of the satirists. We were rebellious and arrogant, refusing to acknowledge that the fruits we were enjoying were paid for by the suffering of previous generations.

I did not come to Sri Lanka to make bucks. Some Sri Lankans did tell me I could have an easy life here but I find I am working harder than ever. That’s OK because I don’t have to commute to an office. I cringe when I see pink-faced Europeans throwing their considerable weight about. I become a little-pink-faced myself when I hear foreigners referring to “the locals” and drooling about the quaintness of it all. I am eight hours away from Colombo’s fleshpots. I have little in the way of loot. I strive, on my modest resources, to help my local community through the local Buddhist temples. In my writing for a Sri Lankan audience I try to make a positive difference by sharing helpful experience without arrogance. In my writing for a foreign audience I try to dispel misconceptions and to convey the subtle complexities of Sri Lankan reality. I hope that, now that I have chosen a former British colony as my permanent home, I do not come across as an imperialist plunderer.


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