The day Trotskyists shut down a country: 65th anniversary of the Sri Lankan Hartal

Sept. 2018 Perera 1953

LSSP leader N.M. Perera addresses a mass rally in 1953.

By RUWAN MUNASINGHE

 “The structuring of the LSSP leadership … showed itself best during the August 1953 Hartal (general strike). The LSSP leadership appeared as a really revolutionary team at the head of insurgent masses, fighting in the streets simultaneously for immediate material gains for the impoverished masses and for the socialist overthrow of the capitalist regime.” — Ernest Mandel

Within the single decade of the 1950s in Sri Lanka, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP)—South Asia’s largest and most successful Trotskyist party—successively rose to a crescendo while leading a mass action shutdown of the island, and then made multiple political missteps that exhausted the immediate possibility of building a working-class revolutionary party. The lessons of this rise and fall ought to be noted by serious revolutionaries striving to build working-class power.

One cannot understand Sri Lankan history without learning of the influence of Trotskyism and Trotskyist figures on the island. The LSSP, perhaps the most formidable political party affiliated with the Fourth International to ever appear in South Asia, was started by a small group of privileged university-educated militants—many of whom studied in Great Britain as well as at Ceylonese colleges.

Despite the bookish roots of the party, the group quickly became integral in working-class struggles, including the organized labor movement. Additionally (and also critically) were struggles for the wellbeing of veterans of World War I, malaria victims, the malnourished, and the movement for an end to aiding the imperialist efforts of Britain in World War II and independence from Britain.

Indeed, the LSSP was one of the first groups to call for independence of Sri Lanka, and it played a leading role in the struggle[1]. This is a large part of the reason why, unlike in India, capitalist forces were fully not in support of an end to colonization..

By the early 1950s, the island had gained independence from the British Empire, had contributed to the war effort (World War II), and was experiencing large commercial gains (particularly in rubber exportation) as a result of the Korean War. The LSSP at this time proved to be quite adept at mobilizing tens of thousands of workers and the rural poor and had formed into a formal Ceylonese political party, which participated as the Sri Lankan section of the Fourth International.

Some LSSP leaders who were exiled to India during British rule were able to return to the island. The returnees were greeted with no less than 12,000 cheerful supporters. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party decided to capitalize on this situation and launched one of the largest Trotskyist-led strikes of the century.

The Hartal

Prompted by the demand for raw materials during the Korean War, Sri Lanka experienced an export boom, which allowed the governing United National Party to maintain a subsidy on rice. In 1953, the UNP decided to cut the rice subsidy, and the price of this staple subsequently rose by almost 300%. This was the major impetus for the Hartal (strike action).

Despite some belief that the rice subsidy was agreed to merely because of altruism and the cut of the subsidy was due merely to economic strife, this is not wholly true. Sri Lanka has always had a leftist bent. The first constitution of Sri Lanka announced the country as a “Democratic Socialist Republic” (which remains the title of the country)[2]. A rice subsidy, along with other various social benefits, was and is the least the country could do to live up to its self-proclaimed “socialism.” Furthermore, the cut was not due to a sharp economic downturn. Sri Lanka was not truly in a complete economic turmoil; it was still gaining quite a lot wealth from the export of raw materials (critically, to post-revolutionary China).

The real reason for the cut was political-economic policy. Seeking new trading partners as the Korean War was winding down, Ceylon shirked United States pressure and signed a major trade agreement with China. This thoroughly provoked the anti-communist reactionary forces in Washington. The U.S. subsequently launched an economic sabotage campaign, which included tactics such as interference of trans-oceanic shipping of raw materials.

Furthermore, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (based in Washington D.C.) published a report on the economic state of the nation. The report advocated for what it called “sound economic policies” and “skillful handling of the government budget.” In plain words, the report called for cutting money to provide basic necessities for the poor and working class. This situation foreshadowed the crisis of the World Bank and the IMF in more contemporary history—the exportation of neoliberal-fundamentalist “Washington consensus” ideologies from the U.S., with consequences of austerity on third world peoples all over the globe.

As historian E.F.C. Ludowyk writes, “It was precisely this sound policy which precipitated the crisis of 1953, when on the advice of the Central Bank the Prime Minister decided to reduce the subsidy on imported rice and so increase the price of rationed rice.” In addition to the lowering of rice subsidies, the government similarly halted free lunch services in schools, postal rates were raised, and the prices of cloth and cheap cigarettes rose. The LSSP led the opposition to this policy and called for a nationwide work stoppage.

The lead-up to the Hartal was portentous of the nature of the upcoming action. Within a span of only two weeks, a handful of LSSP officers collected 70,000 signatures on a petition protesting the government’s austerity measures. On July 21, the day after the increase in the price of rice came into effect, a spontaneous action by peasants in a village Balapitiya successfully blocked traffic. This protest spread to other villages and to the urban proletariat during that week. In the next weeks, rank-and-file workers pressed for their bosses and union leaders to come to strike decisions.

The Stalinist Communist Party failed to properly respond to the call for action but eventually supported the Hartal. The center-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party also supported it, but only after the action broke out. The SLFP’s support was probably due more to opposition to the ruling United National Party (UNP) than concern for the workers and peasants. The Trotskyist LSSP played a pivotal role in the organization of the worker-peasant alliance that was to be seen on Aug. 12[3].

For its part, the military, the police, the press, and the UNP government itself began conspicuous preparations. Government workers were intimidated and threatened to deter participation in the upcoming action. The police and military publically flexed their muscles. Police clashed with students near the University of Peradeniya on Aug. 11. The press began putting out anti-Hartal propaganda; they remained firmly anti-Hartal all the way through the affair.

The morning of Aug. 12, 1953, was nothing short of amazing. It is worth quoting Colvin R. de Silva at length:

“The morning of the 12th dawned in Colombo with the LSSP leaders out and at the gates of the most important government and private workplaces. The harbors struck. The Ratmalana Railway Workshops struck. The tramways struck. The PWD factory at Kolonnawa struck. The DI Carpentry Workshops struck. The Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills struck. Walker’s workshop struck. The match workers struck. Truckers struck. A host of smaller workplaces struck. It was like a rolling wave of strike action.”

Despite its stretch, de Silva’s list of striking places does not even come close to the full list of participating groups in the Hartal; such a list is too long for this article! The streets and workplaces were left empty. Even workers who did not plan to strike were unable to get to their workplaces or simply never showed. All public transportation was nearly completely stopped. Communications were paralyzed. The Colombo Town Hall—occupied by fasting Buddhist priests—flew a black protest flag. Tactics ranged from non-violent protests to organized direct sabotage of property owned by the capitalist class. The island was shut down[4].

The UNP Government, shocked at the immensity of the Hartal, was forced to convene on the HMS Newfoundland in the Colombo Harbor. It decided to place the country under an “emergency.” Following this decision, on Aug. 13, the government tried to smash its fist down on the people as hard as ever. The police played a major role in this. There were raids of places housing Trotskyist literature, raids of homes, police shootings, beatings, and mass arrests. The government used all the tactics under its belt to try to silence the LSSP. Eventually, the emergency began hurting the press and business class. The government’s big kickback was a failure.

 Later years for the LSSP

In the years after the Hartal, the LSSP failed to contest the SLFP, and SWRD Bandaranayke’s campaign for prime minister won on the racist slogan of “Sinhala [language] only.” This alienated the Tamils in the LSSP. The party, which had historically called for parity status for the Sinhala and Tamil languages and had a history of organizing Tamil workers, lost a major bloc of its supporters.

In the 1960s, the LSSP entered into a full governmental coalition with the SLFP; that is, the great Trotskyist party of Sri Lanka decided to rule the country in an alliance with a centrist capitalist party. If the earlier capitulation to the SLFP had alienated the Tamils in the LSSP, this decision alienated the rest of the serious revolutionaries. Many people left the LSSP and tried to create their own revolutionary parties; others pursued trade unionism. Nadaeajah Janagan writes, “with the entry of the LSSP, in 1964, into a coalition government with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the history of the Sri Lankan Left movement turned to one of opportunism.”

The LSSP was immediately suspended from the Trotskyist Fourth International. The left movement in Sri Lanka—perhaps the most militant and certainly the most politically formidable in the South Asian region—had been irreparably injured.

The failure of the party to follow through both on its stance on Tamil self-determination and on its opposition to class-collaboration, and instead capitulate to the forces of Sinhalese/Buddhist nationalism and capitalist politics, were mistakes that proved to be detrimental to the country as a whole. The island descended into a brutal civil war over the creation of a Tamil State in the North Region. The Sri Lankan Civil War lasted from 1983 to 2009. Nearly as destructive was the slow move toward neoliberal economic policies especially under the Rajapaksa presidency.

The great Hartal of Aug. 12, 1953, deserves to not be forgotten on this 65th anniversary. The strength of the workers and peasant classes was shown by their capability to control the country on that one day and to literally send the government out to sea.

[1] “British imperialism became destabilized in Sri Lanka due to the struggles waged by the LSSP during the war period. Strikes launched by the urban working class on the one hand, and in thre plantation sector in the Central Province on the other, spread right up to [the] Badulla [Conference],” writes Nadarajah Janagan.
[2] The constitution recognized the gravity of the need to “realize the objectives of a socialist democracy including the fundamental rights and privileges of all people and which will become the fundamental law of Sri Lanka deriving its powers solely from the people.”
[3] Colvin R. de Silva writes of the LSSP’s motives for this united front: “This call was made, however, also in continuation of the LSSP’s call for a united front on the, extent of agreement which had been reached; namely on the internal task of creating a broad front of all anti-UNP and anti-imperialist forces in Ceylon, with a united working class as its core and as its leadership, with the aim of establishing a government under working class leadership.”
[4] The one major shortcoming of the Hartal was the fact that not all the plantation laborers stopped working.