Whither Lanka’s left movement?
Communist Party leader D. E. W. Gunasekara who, addressing the party’s 64th anniversary last week, invited the JVP to abandon its chauvinistic politics and return to Socialism, explains his party’s views on the national question. We also publish a Q&A with JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe who says his party is the dominant Left force today
‘We made mistakes but we have no blood on our hands’
July 3, 1943 is the birthday of our Party – The Communist Party of Sri Lanka. Our main celebration of the birth anniversary this year coincides with the 12th National Congress of the Communist Youth Federation of Sri Lanka to be held today at Uyanwatte Esplanade, Matara.
We remember on this occasion with deep respect and honour our founding leaders namely Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe, Pieter Keuneman, M.G. Mendis, Rev. Udakendawala Saranankara Thera, A. Vaidyalingam, P. Kandiah, T. Duraisingham, W. Ariyaratne, D.P. Yasodis and all others who gave their lives, languished in jail, subjected to repression and suffered in many ways in their struggle for the cause of the Party during these 64 years.
However, the beginnings of the Left Movement can be traced back to the Suriyamal Movement and the formation of the L.S.S.P. in 1935, in which the Communists played a significant role. In fact our founding leader Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe was the first leftist elected to a Legislature (1937).
Sixty four years is a long period in the life span of a man but for a political party and especially for a Movement such as ours, it is relatively a brief period. It is particularly so in view of its long-term objectives.
Our Party was formed under illegal conditions for, its precursor – the United Socialist Party formed in 1941 had been banned by this time by the British Administrators. C.P.S.L. had been working both under legal and illegal conditions, and in Parliament in the Opposition as well as in the Government as coalition partner in three Administrations.
Though our Party was small, it had the capacity to exert a profound influence on society through its struggle against Imperialism, Colonialism, Feudalism and new Global Capitalism (neo-liberalism). It participated in all working people's struggles and demonstrated its solidarity with people's struggles, world over. Proudly we say that we have contributed our share in the social development of our country.
In the course of our history, our Party was not a Party devoid of mistakes. We have been always honest in accepting our mistakes self-critically and correcting them openly. Our Party suffered setbacks, retreats, defeats, and repression but proudly we say that our Party is not stained with blood in its hands.
The first task of the new Party was to build a strong base in the working class. The trio, Pieter Keunaman, A. Vaidyalingam and P. Kandiah who returned to Sri Lanka, having completed their higher studies in Cambridge University joined Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe, M.G. Mendis and Rev. Saranankara founding the first militant Trade Union Organization of Sri Lanka - Ceylon Federation of Trade Unions affiliated to the World Federation of Trade Unions.
The initial work among the workers was not easy for there was continuous harassment by the colonial authorities, the bourgeoisie national leaders and the police. The meetings were attacked with stones and bottles by thugs of the Reformist Labour leader A.E. Gunasinghe. Ironically, some of these thugs were later the leading cadres of the Ceylon Federation of Trade Union (C.F.T.U.).
International contacts with the International Communist Movement were limited to the fraternal parties of Great Britain and India.
In 1945, Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe who participated in the Founding Congress of the World Trade Union Federation was elected to its General Council.
From the beginning, our Party sought to bring up and nurture its cadres, sympathizers and supporters in the spirit of patriotism, proletarian internationalism and socialism. It was a herculean task, as the anti-communist hysteria was at the zenith of its campaign. Newspapers - Jana Shakthi, Nava Shakthi, Communist, and Maubima were successively published between the years 1943 - 1950, as each of one of those newspapers was proscribed.
The editors and publishers Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe, Rev. Udaklendawala Saranankara Thera, Bennet Silva, and D.P. Yasodis were convicted and jailed for periods of two to five years.
Dr. S.A. Wickeremasinghe was in fact the first Editor or media person to be convicted and jailed for two years being found guilty for having written an editorial against British Imperialism. When the new Soulbury Constitution was enacted a provisionwas made through Section 13.3(f) to deprive those who served prison sentences on convictions of their civic rights, targeted at Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe who as a result was made ineligible to contest the first Parliamentary Election (1947). Though Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe had been re-elected to the State Council for Morawaka Seat at the by-election in 1945, and was serving as a member of the State Council, after release from prison the British colonialists went so far as to make a constitutional provision to keep Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe away from the new Parliament.
To the credit of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and in fact to the Left Movement of Sri Lanka, the struggle for total independence instead of reforms was initiated and pioneered by the Suriya Mal Movement.
Today, Sri Lanka stands out in the developing world in its human development record for literacy rate, education, health, social welfare, and trade union rights etc. and even far ahead of India and Pakistan etc. It is an acknowledged fact of history that it was the Left Movement pioneered by leaders like Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe, Dr. N.M. Perera and Philip Gunawardena who consistently and relentlessly struggled from the State Council days for the cause of human development.
On the ideological plane, the Communist Party had always prioritized its tasks by insisting on the completion of anti-imperialist and anti-feudal tasks in order to consolidate the national independence of Sri Lanka. Absence of national unity and left unity was considered an impediment to the completion of those tasks. The theory of united front was one of the issues that was hotly debated in the left movement on the ideological plane. The Communist Party through its 4th. National Congress spelled out theoretically the need for a broad front, clearly defining the present stage of Sri Lankan revolution. All subsequent broad-fronts governments were the outcome of an intensive ideological struggle initiated by the Communist Party from its inception. The socio-economic transformation carried out since 1956 were significant results of that ideological struggle initiated by the Communist Party.
With the collapse of socialism in Europe, in 1991, the entire socialist movement including the Left movement in Sri Lanka suffered a setback and more so on the ideological plane, with the aggressive onslaught of neo-liberalism. The emergence of separatism and terrorism in the North and the ascendancy of chauvinism, terrorism and fundamentalist trends in the South were challenges to the Left movement. The working class, in particular was sharply divided. Consumerism introduced by neo-liberalism since 1978 also had its impact on the consciousness of the working people.
However, the unipolar world brought about by the collapse of socialism in Europe is facing its challenges. Multi-polar world is struggling to be born with shifts in the world balance of forces. Latin America where the models of neo-liberalism were aggressively and expansively introduced, has been rejecting war-fare neo-liberalism - country after country within a brief period of eight years. We witness the emergence of new economic, political and geographical grouping, contributing to the changes in the world balance of forces. The giant strides in Asia contribute immeasurably to these trends of development.
On the domestic front, we continue to be confronted with several crises as by products generated by the ethnic crisis.
It took almost 50 years for the two main Parties in our country to realize the need for revision of their policy on the National Question. Even though they have come so near to each other, the petty, shallow and narrow politics are preventing our effort in the search of a consensus on the National Question.
In the meantime, new factors – J.V.P. and J.H.U. have emerged which today stand in the way of a solution. We have missed or lost so many opportunities in the past to solve this problem.
We would fervently appeal to the J.V.P. to rediscover the national question in its true perspective, shed its feudalistic thinking and return to the Left Movement.
On the economic front, we cannot think of a new economic vision so long as the national question persists. If we want to move forward, highest priority should be given to the National Question in our National Agenda.
I believe that a weakened Left Movement provides a fertile ground for the present impasse. Revival of our Left movement, in the context of awakening developments on the world arena, is imperative. The Communist Party of Sri Lanka is committed tounite, revive and rebuild the Left Movement.
‘We change with the times, we will not fail’
JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe interviewed by Chandani Kirinde for The Sunday Times
The Communist Party of Sri Lanka marks its 64th anniversary this week. Considering the JVP to be one of the new left parties, what are your views on the old left parties?
From the beginning they did not have a political programme to come to power in this country. Even though they had a very good opportunity and made sacrifices. When they led the 1953 hartal it was one of the greatest agitations in the country, but later it was betrayed by the leaders of the left themselves. So the advantage of this was taken by the SLFP. In the 1960s, the left was a formidable force but both the SLFP and the UNP tackled them. When the LSSP accepted ministerial posts – (two cabinet and one junior ministerial post), that was the beginning of the end of the left movement. Finally the CP and other parties followed the LSSP.
The leaders of the old left such as Dr.N.M.Perera are idolised even today, at least in some quarters. Are you saying they were never really committed to the cause of the masses?
The problem was that they started their movement in other countries such as Britain , so their teachers were Englishmen. Their movement was born in these countries. And when they came here, the leaders of the left movement did not adapt themselves to local conditions. They have been talking and fighting for the rights of the down-trodden people of the country at the same time they lost the opportunity to understand the common man of this country, understand the culture of this country. They were a set of people who were a little bit alien to our culture. The difference between the JVP and the old left is that it has a different programme. The old left lost its position in the political arena and the JVP filled the void created by the old left. Where are they (the old left parties) today? If not for the SLFP they have no place. They are not strong enough to stand on their own feet.
Was their downfall because they linked up with the bigger parties?
They did not have a political programme to come to power in this country and implement the programme for uplifting of the people. That is what paved the way for the SLFP. They were the leading party in the opposition. If they were smart enough, if they had confidence in the people, they would have become the rulers of this country. The left movement should have been in power in this country by 1956 because the crisis was so acute and the conditions were so favourable for that movement to gain popularity among the people.
Was it divisions between the left parties that made them miss the chance?
Yes there were some divisions. The two main left parties were fighting each other. They regarded each other as the enemy.
The JVP also aligned with one of the bigger parties – the SLFP. So what’s the difference between the JVP and the old left?
Joining the SLFP was the beginning of the end for the old left because they betrayed the down trodden people of this country. They shouldn’t have done that. But in our case, no one could dilute our programme. We have not betrayed our honesty, our dedication. What happened to them? They were very honest leaders but their followers became stooges under them. When our leaders became ministers they were honest. No one dared to do something wrong. There were no allegations at all. There were no complains at all that to get a contract the contractors had to bribe our ministers. That is the achievement. The old left did not try to safeguard their identity. They let down the movement and the people who voted for the left parties. Even today there are so many people who have lost confidence in the left movement because of their actions. This has caused difficulties for us too.
What then is the standing of the left movement in the country ?
There was a time there was a crisis of identity for the left movement both internationally and locally. We had to undergo difficult times after 1971 till 1976 and again from 1983 to 1994. Despite all the trouble, we changed ourselves. We have reformed ourselves that is why we are existing today. The ability to change that is what the old left lacked. They did not understand the changing situation in the country and once they started something they became worse than the conservatives. The left movement became more conservative than the conservative party but it cannot be that way. We have been changing with the situation according to the needs of the people without losing the dedication to the country and our commitment to the people. That is why we did not fail, we will not fail.
Is the JVP then the only left party now, in your estimation?
I don't want to let down other parties but the JVP is a national party today. We have organisers everywhere. We always wanted to become a national political party and fortunately, there is no ambiguity for the people about the left parties today. I don't think all of the old left parties can together muster 50,000 votes.
Can the JVP break into the support bases of the two main parties?
Yes. First of all the political parties should have enough courage to face challenges. Now the people are fed up of both the UNP and the SLFP. We have by practice proved that the JVP can rebuild this country. People have been admiring our work of the past 14 years, particularly because we have reformed ourselves a lot since 1994. People who read papers and analyse what is happening know we are interested in finding solutions to the crisis in country. We have been working for the rights of the working classes but now we are not only fighting for the working people but also for the rights of the industrialists.
Many people from the chamber of commerce, the apparel industry come to us to discuss their problems. That's the sort of radical change we need. Thy have understood that we are not wreckers. They say they have many problems and want our assistance to voice their concerns today in parliament, tomorrow as a government. We are not anti-business, only anti-corruption. We are in the process of explaining to trade unions that if the industrial sector flourishes, they too will benefit from it.