Sri Lanka: Interview with Siritunga Jayasuriya, United Socialist Party’s veteran Trotskyist leader

Siritunga Jayasuriya, General Secretary of the United Socialist Party, Sri Lanka

The following English language translation of an interview with Siritunga Jayasuriya was conducted by Samantha Rajapaksa and published on the ‘Left Voice’ (Sri Lanka) website.

Siritunga Jayasuriya (Siri) is General Secretary of the United Socialist Party. Siri became a member of the youth league of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in 1964. In 1965 he obtained membership of the party itself with the signed approval of Dr. N. M. Perera, having passed the theoretical and practical membership tests of the party.

In the early 1970s, Siri joined the struggle against the class collaborationist policies of party colleagues along with Dr. Wickeramabahu (Bahu) and Professor Liyanage Sumane. In late 1972, Bahu and Sumane were expelled from the party for creating alternative factions within it. In 1974 they formed a group called “Vama Samasamaja Group” (‘Left LSSP’).

At that time, Siri was working for the Ceylon Transport Board. Following the decision to set up “Vama Samasamaja”, he quit his job and chose full-time revolutionary politics as his career. From there, Comrade Siritunga took another radical step and ran as the Left Samasamaja candidate in the July 1975 Colombo South bye-election. His opponent was the pro-imperialist J.R. Jayawardena, alias ‘Yankee Dickey’.

Siri became leader of the Nava Sama Samaja Party, which was founded at the end of 1977. Disputes arose, including on the India Peace Keeping Force’s 1987 intervention into Sri Lanka which led to a split in the NSSP in 1988/89. This dispute saw the creation of the Marxist Workers’ Tendency in the early 1990s which later (in 1997) became the United Socialist Party.

Samantha Rajapaksa: How is politics amid Covid 19?

Siritunga Jayasuriya: With the Covid 19 epidemic, our political activities are severely restricted. There is a situation where it is not possible to hold regular meetings, discussions and demonstrations, especially May Day demonstrations. The failure to control the Covid epidemic is another prime example of the failures of the capitalist class. Although bourgeois leaders claim that privatisation is the only solution to the crisis facing capitalism, without the state’s free health care system, people would have died like animals in the face of the Corona virus. Despite the limitations imposed by the epidemic, we are carrying on our left revolutionary politics amidst a very difficult environment.

Did your politics originate from the LSSP?

Yes. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party was my first political party. I can briefly comment on my life before that. I was born in Thimbirigasyaya, Colombo 5. My father was a worker and we were a working class family. My father worked at Millers & Co. of Colombo, where he was a trade union leader for the LSSP. He was a strong LSSP activist in the Thimbirigasyaya, Kirulapone and Narahenpita areas. Inspired by my father, I joined the LSSP. My childhood was closely linked to LSSP politics.

Why did you join the LSSP? They could not defeat class-collaborationist politics.

As I mentioned, I have been involved in LSSP politics since childhood. Leaders like Bernard Zoysa and Colvin R. de Silva (who lived near our house) were very close to us and we had a close relationship with them. In that environment, it was normal for me to become a socialist – ‘Samasamajist’.

During that period, there were constant discussions and debates within the LSSP. The theoretical discussions with the LSSP leaders at the Jawatte party office in Colombo, at that time over the weekends, were fascinating, controversial and heated. Doric de Souza, V. Karalasingham, Osmond Jayaratne and Ananda Perera participated in these theoretical discussions. In that environment, there was a huge discussion among the youth about the decision of the LSSP leaders to abandon Marxist teachings and form a coalition with the SLFP. I was a major activist in those discussions.

I met Vikramabahu in 1970 during discussions within the party against the coalition politics initiated by the LSSP leaders. We then engaged in in-depth theoretical discussions and then proceeded to take organisational action as a result.

There were many comrades who joined with us in the political struggle against the coalition. Some of them are no longer alive. Among them was Dharmadasa Pathirana of Moratuwa, Ronnie Perera of Kandy, S. Rampati of Kurunegala and Anthony Pillai of Jaffna. The founders of our struggle against coalition politics now represent a variety of political currents that have parted from building the revolutionary party needed for the socialist transformation of society. For example, Vikramabahu is currently working with the capitalist United National Party (UNP). Sumanasiri performs the role of an independent leftist outside party politics. Vasudeva, who joined our Left LSSP around 1976, has been engaged in racist and capitalist politics, including with parties such as the Podu Jana Peramuna.

The NSSP had great potential to defeat the politics of class collaboration and become the revolutionary political force of the working class. When the NSSP was founded, there was an environment in which a large number of young intellectuals, at that time, served as its leaders or members. For example, Dr. Shantha de Alwis, Dr. Chris Rodrigo, Dr. Kumar David, Prof. Vijaya Dissanayake, Dr. Nalin de Silva and many others were among them. Moreover, many trade unions were attached to the NSSP, such as the Railway Workers’ Union, Government Clerical Services Union, Local Government Clerical Services Union, the Government Office Assistants’ Union, the Public Works Department Employees’ Union, the Government Press, the Commercial and Industrial Workers’ Union, and the Janaraja Health Workers’ Union.

The defeat of the 1980 general strike marked a turning point in the struggle to defeat coalition politics. Had the 1980 strike not been defeated, it would have been a decisive turning point in Sri Lankan political history. The defeat of the strike paved the way for all bourgeois leaders to implement a neo-liberal socio-economic programme, from Jayawardene to Gotabhaya Rajapakse.

Why did you quit the NSSP?

As I mentioned above, I was a founding member of the NSSP. Its history goes back to the history of the Left LSSP tendency, which began in 1970. After the crushing United National Party election victory in December 1977 and the subsequent crisis in the LSSP, a large conference decided that we should start activities calling ourselves the ‘LSSP (New Leadership)’. During this period, there was pressure from the membership to build unity among left parties in the face of the repression of JR Jayewardene. Accordingly, a discussion was started among the LSSP, Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL), JVP, Bala Thampo’s Revolutionary Workers’ Party and us – the LSSP (New Leadership). At this meeting, the leader of the LSSP, Colvin R. de Silva, stated that there cannot be two LSSPs, and therefore the discussion on uniting the Left cannot proceed.

A group of comrades, including myself, were of the opinion that if the question of the name was an obstacle to building the unity of the left, we, the LSSP (New Leadership) should change our name and build unity. Vikramabahu and others opposed this idea. There was a debate in our Central Committee on this matter and we proposed to change the LSSP (New Leadership) name to Nava (New) Sama Samaja Party (NSSP). At the Central Committee meeting, held on September 15th and 16th, 1979, our proposal to change the name to NSSP and join Left Unity was approved by a majority vote. Following the defeat in the Central Committee, Vikramabahu resigned and I was elected as founding Secretary of the NSSP by a majority vote.

You asked why I quit the NSSP. It is a long story but I will try to give a brief answer. There were several critical theoretical questions that came up within the NSSP. The split was due to political differences; none of the personal grievances was relevant.

  1. A debate arose within the party about the class nature of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), which was started in 1984 under the leadership of Vijaya Kumaratunga. The NSSP leadership, including Vikramabahu, Vasudeva, Neil Wijethilaka and Linus Jayathilaka, were of the opinion that Vijaya’s party was a working class party. According to their view, the SLMP had a larger working class base than the LSSP had in 1964 under the leadership of ‘NM’ (Pereira). Accordingly, the NSSP leadership defined the SLMP of Vijaya Kumaratunga as Sri Lanka’s foremost workers’ party.

Comrades KW Jayatilleke, Satyapala, Quintus Liyanage, who were members of the NSSP Central Committee, along with myself, rejected this idea as purely anti-Marxist and empiricist. Our idea was that the SLMP was a radical, militant and petty bourgeois party.

  1. The next question was the question of the nature of the Indian state. The NSSP leaders, including Vikramabahu, were of the opinion that the Indian leaders, including Indira Gandhi, were more progressive compared to JR Jayawardena, largely because they were more secular politicians.

We rejected that idea and our view was that India was a state with imperialist interests in the South Asian region. Accordingly, we pointed out that Indian leaders have no progressive nature. With this, a long debate started within the party about the nature of imperialism today.

  1. As a result of The Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, signed between Rajiv Gandhi and JR Jayawardena, the Indian Peace Keeping Force was sent to Sri Lanka. Vikramabahu, Vasudeva, Linus and Neil were of the opinion that there were other acceptable and positive features in the Indo-Lanka Accord. Not only that, the NSSP signed a joint document with the other parties of the Socialist Front which stated: “We accept this Indo-Lanka agreement. We support it. We will do everything we can to ensure that it works properly”.

I have all the documents to prove this. This position of the NSSP, including Vikramabahu, was a total distortion of Marxism.

Thus, our minority, under the leadership of the above-mentioned comrades, including myself, launched an internal struggle within the party against the opportunistic and non-Marxist views pursued by the NSSP leadership. In the end, we asked permission to work as a separate group within the NSSP, after which we were referred to as the “minority group.”

This debate became particularly heated when the NSSP leadership agreed to accept weapons from the UNP government – a proposal that came from the Communist Party – as protection from the onslaught launched by the Desapremi Janatha Vyaparaya (DJV- Patriotic People’s Movement). The DJV patriotic movement, affiliated to the JVP, continued to assassinate left-wing militants. LW Panditha, Vijaya Kumaratunga, teachers’ union leader, George Ratnayake, and many others were brutally murdered by the JVP. Facing this terror had become a great challenge. In this environment, the NSSP decided to get weapons from JR to face this situation.

Our minority group was totally against this. Our view was that steps should be taken to arm the working class in the face of the horrors of the racist patriotic people’s movement and that it would be a grave mistake for a few leaders to take up arms and defend themselves from the capitalist government. This theoretical and practical conflict ended in December 1989 when the NSSP blocked the doors of the NSSP to our group. (There is a detailed description about this matter in the book, “A debate among the left, reality and dreams”).

Didn’t you also take responsibility for the defeat of the 1980 general strike?

The question you have asked about the defeat of the 1980 general strike is also a very important question. There were three NSSP-affiliated trade unions in the Joint Trade Union Action Committee (JTUAC), which decided on the 1980 general strike headed by Comrade LW Panditha. They were the Government Clerical Services Union (GCSU) led by Savanadasa and Mahanama, the Local Government Clerical Services Union, led by TA Nandasena, and the United Federation of Labour-led by Oswin Pranando. I had the habit of attending JTUAC meetings with Oswin Fernando. There was a lengthy discussion among the unions on July 11th, 1980 to take a decision to launch the strike. Bala Thampo walked out of the meeting protesting against the decision to strike. Just after midnight on that day, the rest of the union leaders decided to call a general strike from July 17th.

The history of the 1980 strike is very long. I have published a book containing all the documents related to it. The book goes on to describe how the JVP betrayed the strike and how Bala Thampo’s Ceylon Mercantile Workers’ Union ran away from the strike proposal. It should be noted that no one has challenged the book’s contents, so far.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the main activity of the 1980 strike depended on the NSSP’s activism. In that book, I have elaborated that it is a fact that the main operation of the strike was organised by the NSSP, as well as it being responsible for the defeat of the strike. It can be seen that the NSSP led the working class to take a decision to strike from a relatively extreme political position under the influence of its militant leaders at the time. In fact, an objective situation had arisen for taking action to put a stop to JR’s repressive programme. However, instead of advancing the strike, step by step, it was a tactical mistake to call an unlimited general strike immediately. A study of the lessons of the strike reveals that the struggle should have begun with a one-day token strike, identifying the weaker sections of the working class and calling for a general strike as the second step.

This section can conclude with an excerpt from the book ‘Strike 1980’: “Thus it is clear that the entire working class was not prepared to launch a general strike at once. The people of my generation who were the masterminds of the ‘80s strike must have understood this bitter truth during the strike. The working class base of the NSSP also collapsed with the defeat of the strike. The NSSP leadership, which played a key role in the strike, could not avoid a serious internal political crisis and collapsed with the defeat of the strike, as it was not prepared to go for any other measures even after the strike. Unfortunately, the NSSP leadership did not understand the defeat of the strike was a defeat for its political intervention. It therefore missed the responsibility of wiping off the wounds of the strike and preparing the class for the next struggle. As a result, the NSSP took a politically wrong stance after the strike.” [Excerpt: Strike 1980, page 25]

Why was the United Socialist Front, formed in 1987, not seen as an oppressed class front? Was there an international reason for that?

The United Socialist Front (USF), formed in 1987, was instrumental in mobilising the working class to counter the racist terror of the patriotic DJV, led by the JVP. Accordingly, left-wing activists were able to work on the one front against Sinhala racism. However, since the United Socialist Front worked with the UNP government and India to implement Provincial Councils it could not be an alternative force to the deteriorating UNP. It is an open secret that the political parties of the USF received financial assistance through the Indian embassies to contest the first round of the provincial council elections held after the death of Vijaya Kumaratunga. In this environment, the USF contested provincial councils and won several seats, but failed to become an anti-UNP alternative force based on the working class and the oppressed masses. In addition to these facts, there is not any reason I know to prove that there was international pressure against the USF.

What do you think of the socialist internationals that exist today? Wasn’t there a division in the CWI recently?

I guess the question you are raising about international relations today must be about Trotskyist internationals. A number of international organisations affiliated with the 4th International, founded by Trotsky in 1938, are still active. It seems that this is not the time to discuss those internationals.

However, I must comment on the question you have raised about the CWI. You have asked me about the recent split in the International to which we are affiliated – the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). The debate, which began in 2018, did end in a split. The crisis began when some members of the Irish section’s leadership broke away from democratic centralist traditions by investigating a disciplinary issue without informing the rest of the leadership. Very soon it became clear that there were deepening political divisions, as the Irish section abandoned a revolutionary socialist programme, and Trotsky’s transitional programme, in an attempt to maintain electoral positions. Attempts by the International Secretariat to rectify these issues failed. Instead, the Irish section had increasingly succumbed to the pressures of identity politics and did not raise a consistent Marxist approach amongst the working class and conduct consistent work in the trade unions. It must be understood that identity politics is a tool used by world capitalism to divide the working-class movement.

This debate further extended to the issue of how revolutionaries intervene on the issues of women’s rights, the LGBTQ question and the environment. There cannot be any question of us not campaigning on these matters. We must understand the positive features of such movements, as well as the multi-racial and mixed-class nature of them, and intervene to integrate those agitations with a socialist programme and the working class movement.

This controversy was discussed in other sections of our International. Eventually, this grouping moved away from the CWI’s principles, resulting in the formation of a separate international.

There have been numerous attempts to unite the Trotskyist international organisations around the world. In addition to uniting as individuals, they also sought to unite as organisations and it did not succeed. For example, a few years ago the United Secretariat (USFI) and the CWI began such a discussion but were unable to move forward. There cannot be any disagreement that debate about uniting internationals must not be abandoned as there can be new attempts to try and move forward. But the reality is that it is not an easy task.

What do you say to the accusation that you are sectarian?

Your question brings to my attention, for the first time, this allegation of my activism and sectarianism. First of all, I would like to express my gratitude to you for raising this question.

Throughout history, I have advocated the building of left unity on principle. I have previously pointed out that I have taken the lead in changing the name of the NSSP and making sacrifices to build left unity. Below are some more examples we took in the direction of left unity.

  1. In 2012 the Frontline Socialist Party, which split from the JVP, proposed to hold a United May Day just about ten days before May Day. At that time, we had made arrangements, even pasting up posters, for our own May Day. Considering the agreement of all the other left groups to the Frontline Party’s resolution, we also agreed to join the joint May Day. At this discussion, we emphasised that suddenly holding a joint May Day, without discussing a plan and a course of action, was inappropriate for the long-term future of the Left. We are also of the view that holding a separate May Day in 2013, after great hope being given by celebrating May Day jointly in 2012, was a major obstacle to the future of left unity.
  2. The next issue is the discussion of the nomination for a common left candidate in the 2015 presidential election. There was a general consensus among the left parties and groups to field a common candidate. But there was controversy over the perspectives for the presidential election. The main issue was the position to be taken on the national question. As Marxists, our position was that the recognition of the right of the Tamil people to self-determination should be included in our national programme. The disagreement of the Frontline Party to this proposal was the main reason for the breakdown of this discussion. We are of the view that it was an opportunistic ploy to remove the right of the Tamil people to self-determination in order to gain Sinhala votes. Marxists cannot put the debate on the national question as secondary in the country’s important elections, such as the presidential election.
  3. In 2018, a discussion began on the merger of Left Voice and the United Socialist Party. A crucial joint discussion of that round of talks was held on 18 December 2018 at our office. Comrades of the two organisations freely and openly participated in the discussion, and some of the comrades on both sides raised serious questions about unification. Nevertheless, the leadership of the two organisations agreed to take steps to unite the two organisations. Com. Sumanasiri Liyanage also participated in this discussion.

This discussion ended on that day with the two organisations having high hopes of building a united organisation. Comrade Sumanasiri, who was made aware of this agreement on the same night, sent a timetable and an agenda to our two organisations to build unity. It contained the steps to be taken for the two organisations to become one within a year. We emphasised that we were prepared to consider changing the name of the United Socialist Party, if necessary for unification.

The next round of discussion took place at the Left Voice office. Unexpectedly, we were surprised to find that the comrades of ‘Axaya’ were also invited to this discussion. The Axaya group openly stated that it does not accept the concept of party building. Our future course of action was completely disrupted when a group of people who rejected the Leninist concept of building such a party were summoned to the first round of discussions on the unification of the two organisations. It is unfortunate that the original intention for the merger of the two organisations had been negated by transforming it into a common discussion among other groups.

Meanwhile, Comrade Sumanasiri brought forward an important proposal to print the two newspapers – ‘Wame Handa’ and ‘Rathu Tharuwa’ – as a joint newspaper. It was agreed to share the front page and the back page in support of the plantation workers’ wage struggle and print our two newspapers as one. When I called Comrade Neil Wijetilleke to start work in this regard, he said that we should not rush into it and we could proceed after resolving the issues that need to be resolved. It is also sad that that future day never came.

It is true that there are debates among leftist organisations. Among them, there are solvable issues, as well as theoretical questions that need to be discussed at length. It is the responsibility of all of us to try to enter into an open and honest discussion about these. Insulting and slandering each other as factionalists, without such open dialogue is an obstacle to the future unity of the left that is expected to be built. Therefore, I emphasize that we are ready for an open discussion on such sectarian allegations.

Did anyone break the new left front that was formed in the late 1990s?

There are a number of articles that were published in those days about the collapse of the New Left Front (NLF). The New Left Front was formed by the amalgamation of the NSSP, United Socialist Party, New Democratic Party and the Diyasa Study Circle. In the first Provincial Council election contested under this front, we were able to win one seat in the Colombo District, and we decided to appoint Comrade Vikramabahu for it. There was an election for the post of Leader of the House in the Western Provincial Council. It was reported that Vikramabahu was attempting to become the Leader of the House with the support of Karu Jayasuriya of the UNP. There was a discussion between the parties of the New Left Front about this. At this meeting, Vikramabahu stated that he had the right to make independent decisions in the provincial council, as the NSSP representative, and that the views of the other parties in the front did not apply to him.

With this hegemonic stance of Vikramabahu, the New Left Front then became obsolete and became Vikramabahu’s personal property, and the other parties in the front issued several joint statements about this.

How do you look at the environmental issue and the socialist struggle?

With the neo-liberal destructive agenda, the environmental question has become a major issue around the world. The profit-based dictatorship of the bourgeoisie has brought the earth to the brink of destruction. One of the key proposals put forward by scientists to control climate change is to create a “carbon neutral” production pattern. This cannot be done without nationalising the massive monopolies of the economy. Therefore, the destruction of the environment is not something that can be solved within the capitalist system. Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest men, stated a few years ago that the destruction of the environment could not be prevented within the bourgeois system. Therefore, it is essential that the struggle for a socialist world is one for production to be based on human needs and consideration of the environmental question.

The national or ethnic issue is a major issue in Sri Lanka. Should we not work to unite the left revolutionaries in the North and the South?

 The national question (I do not think it is correct to refer to it as an ethnic question) is the most important question in Sri Lanka. Although it has become clear that the bourgeoisie cannot move forward without resolving the national question, the weak bourgeoisie, which is trying to gain power with the Sinhala majority vote, has not been able to resolve the issue.

The national question is a creation of capitalism. But with the failure of the bourgeoisie to solve the national question in underdeveloped countries, like Sri Lanka, resolving the national question has fallen on the working class-led left revolutionary politics in building a socialist force. Recognition of the right of the Tamil people to self-determination will be an essential condition here. Yet pseudo-leftists, who pretend to be leftists or revolutionaries, are not ready to accept the principle of the right to self-determination. The absurd notion of “equal rights”, to cover up for the denial of the right to self-determination, is presented with the intention of subduing the Sinhala racist politics that lives among them.

The slogan of building a united left force against capitalism, racism and coalition politics has become the theme slogan of the United Socialist Party, to build a centre of united struggle between the North and the South. Overcoming this challenge is the paramount challenge facing true socialists.

What is the path to victory for working people in the future?

The trade union movement, representing the working people of Sri Lanka, has failed to learn lessons from the 1980 strike and move forward as a united trade union movement. It is unfortunate that the unions, which are preparing to gather to celebrate May Day under the slogan “All workers in the world must unite”, have been working separately since the day after it was agreed.

It is essential to build joint committees within the working class at the workplace and area level, to achieve the common demands of the working class, as well as to defeat state repression. First, a joint committee of the trade union leaderships should be formed and it should be made a regularly meeting body. It can send an important message to the workers in the workplace. We can learn how the unions can unite in the face of political differences and divisions by studying the history of the Joint Trade Union Action Committee which led the 1980 strike.

The only way to achieve the freedom and emancipation of the working class, and the people of the North in Sri Lanka, is through the class struggle. Racist politics will be used to try and block the path of the united struggle between the North and the South. The other obstacle is that the working class is tied to parliamentary bourgeois coalition politics. It has been more than 50 years since class-collaborationist politics began in 1964. The old LSSP and Communist parties are mired in coalition and racist politics and are heading towards their end. In that context, the challenge for Marxists is to create a new force that unites the North and the South against capitalist coalitionism and racism. While it may seem daunting, we have great determination and confidence to overcome that difficult challenge in the 21st century.





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May 2021