Socialist Struggle in Sri Lanka

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

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.”