The Lanka Samasamaja Party, the oldest political party in the country celebrates its 85th anniversary on December 18, 2020. The Party grew out of its Youth Leagues which played a prominent part in the ‘Suriya-Mal’ movement – an alternative for indigenous ex-servicemen as against the Poppy Day where funds collected were for British ex-servicemen. The Marxist party from its early days heavily focused on the fight against the British colonial power were identified with people-friendly policies and the struggle for workers’ rights. The party has been instrumental or actively fought for the adoption of many of the progressive initiatives which we today take for granted.
The fight for full independence from Britain rather than constitutional reforms which was the aim of the so-called national parties was successful a mere 13 years after the party’s formation. The British bases which remained were removed under the SWRD Bandaranaike government nine years later and full freedom was achieved when Sri Lanka became a republic on May 22, 1972, under the stewardship of the party’s Colvin R de Silva. The fight for free education and free health services which was originated by the Communist Party’s SA Wickramasinghe, then an LSSP member of the First State Council, bore fruit with the CWW Kannangara Free Education Bill of 1945 and the Free Health Policy of 1951.
The party actively organized workers in both the urban and plantation sectors into its trade union movement led by NM Perera. These initiatives were dealt a heavy blow in 1940 when the Party leadership was arrested supposedly for opposing the British war effort but in reality to undermine its struggles in the estate sector. The Bracegirdle Affair and the Party’s militancy in the aftermath of the Mooloya Estate strike of 1939 which resulted in the shooting of Govindan had frightened the English planters.
Although the leadership broke jail at Bogambara, escaped to India and became actively involved using false names in the Quit India movement there, Party political activity was hampered. In 1945, by the time the leadership was released from prison after being arrested in India and the party became active once more in the trade union field, Indian pressure had facilitated the dominance of the Thondaman leadership in the plantations. However the Party fought and won better pay and working conditions including schooling and health, the right of trade union officials to enter estates, equal pay for men and women and ultimately nationalization of the estate sector although it was unsuccessful in its fight against the UNP’s disenfranchisement of the plantation worker.
It organized the general strikes of 1945, 1946 and 1947 aimed not only at workers’ rights but also as part of the independence struggle, the Hartal of 1953 which many believe was a lost opportunity to take power and many strikes particularly during the 1956 to 1959 period. Workers were able to win rights such as better pay, the eight-hour working day, pension, leave, payment for overtime, a provident fund scheme and the May Day holiday through these struggles.
The Party fought for and achieved to some measure the nationalization of the major foreign businesses in the country. It fought for Sinhala and Tamil to be given pride of place in the country’s administration but failed in its attempts to ensure that these rights were provided equitably to the Tamil speaking people. The 1972 Constitution in whose adoption the Party played a prominent role gave constitutional recognition to Buddhism as the foremost religion and Sinhala as the Official language of the country, a matter of discontent for many Party supporters.
The Party which was represented in the first State Council had 7-15% membership in Parliament from Independence to 1977 and NM Perera was Leader of the Opposition twice during that period. It held three Ministries in the Sirima Bandaranaike government of 1960 during its last few months and in 1970 holding 12 and 19 seats respectively in Parliament. It had four members and a Minister in the Chandrika Bandaranaike government of 1994 but in the recent past it has had to depend on being nominated through a National list in order to enter Parliament.
On the occasion of the 85th anniversary, it is worth reflecting on why the influence of the Party had declined sharply since 1977. Could the perennial Marxist discourse on the dangers posed by coalition politics with capitalist parties provide the answer? Unfortunately coalition politics in the early days was clouded by the world food and oil crisis of the seventies which led to popular discontent and further complicated by the JVP uprising of 1971. Could it have been a matter of personalities with the inability of later leaders to replicate the high energy of the original leaders, and the Party’s inability to retain possible leadership material like Anil Moonesinghe and Athauda Seneviratne who drifted to the SLFP; or Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Vickramabahu, who displeased by coalition politics and founded the NSSP, taking with them a large section of the party’s trade unions?
This together with JR’s tactics in dealing with the disastrous 1980 strike decimated the party’s trade union base, which had hitherto provided the muscle to its parliamentary politics. Or was it that the party’s programmes ceased to be relevant or critical to a nation, particularly its young generation which took for granted many of the rights and privileges they enjoyed through the early struggles of the Samasamajists.
An important reason contributing to the decline has been the new electoral system introduced by JR which required high investment on an election campaign. Neither the Party nor its members, brought up in a culture of high integrity and zero tolerance of corruption had the wherewithal for such a campaign, giving the Party no option than to align itself with other parties.
The Party was also unable to face up to patronage politics introduced by Felix Dias and JR which has become a crucial feature and an electoral expectation in today’s Sri Lankan politics. While individual politicians have contributed to the national debate even under these trying circumstances, like Batty Weerakoon’s successful prevention of the sale of the Eppawala phosphate resources and Tissa Vitarana’s valiant fight to address
the national problem, these efforts have not been appreciated by the major party. LSSP Ministers have been forced to vote for proposals like the 18th and 20th Amendments which went against everything they stood for to merely continue in politics. However, recent critical comments on government policy by Tissa Vitarana, relieved of Ministerial responsibilities although still a nominated MP augurs well for the party.
Displeasure against the Party’s approach to the 18th amendment resulted in a substantial group led by Lal Wijenayake and Jayampathy Wickremaratne to leave the Party and end up in the uncomfortable position of being part of the disastrous UNP dominated coalition of 2015. Many members of this group feeling the need for forging a strong left movement, then aligned with the JVP’s National People’s Power but this too has failed to win the backing of the people.
The left has a formidable task facing up to many challenges if it is to play a significant role in Sri Lankan politics given the prevailing culture of high cost elections, religious and racial intolerance, crony capitalism, corruption, suppression of dissent, a pliant court system and militarization. Is there any part of the left that can successfully overcome these issues and reclaim the glory of its past?