July 3, 2020 was the birth centenary of Sanmugathasan who fought revisionist tendencies within Marxism throughout his political life
Many of our left leaders who began their political life in earnest in the early part of the last century to change history turned into prisoners of the very same history within two decades. The lure of power and privilege that came with ministerial and other high level positions in government made them embrace a politics of class compromise and collaboration. Their reliance on opportunistic shortcuts in the name of tactics to attract votes at parliamentary elections had severely damaged the integrity and the future of the left movement in Sri Lanka. However, there were a few exceptional leaders on the left who never succumbed to opportunist and capitulationist tendencies. Among them was Nagalingam Sanmugathasan, one of the leaders of the country’s communist movement, and popularly known as ‘Shan’, whose birth centenary fell on July 3, 2020. N. Sanmugathasan, the founding father of the Maoist movement in Sri Lanka, deserves to be remembered for his contributions to the working class movement and the fight against revisionism. He was a leading theoretician of the international Maoist movement.
Born on 3 July 1920 in Manipay, Jaffna, Shan read for a degree in history at the University College, Colombo, where he was a popular student leader. In July 1943, soon after sitting the final examination at the university, he joined the newly formed Communist Party. The Party was barely two weeks old when he joined it as a full-timer. Since then, Shan´s life had been so intimately linked with the history of the communist movement. Shan, the respected Marxist intellectual, served as a teacher and guide in Marxist theory and international politics for generations of communist activists and other politically engaged progressives. The political classes he regularly conducted for nearly three decades since the latter part of 1950 in Colombo and other parts of the country always drew an impressive number of participants. Indeed, the continuous popularity enjoyed by these classes was an acknowledgement of Shan´s mastery of dialectical materialism and pedagogic skills.
Shan’s contribution to the popularisation of the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism far outweighed that of any other left leader in this country. He was consistently engaged in ideological struggles against Trotskyism, reformism and modern revisionism. As the leader of the Ceylon Trade Union Federation (CTUF), he played an important role in many working class struggles including the 1947 general strike, 1953 Hartal, and the 1955 transport workers´ strike.
However, he was expelled from the Communist Party in 1963 for opposing the revisionist line of the Party. Shortly before that, he had visited China for discussions with the Chinese Communist Party. Even before the Sino-Soviet ideological conflict came to the open, it was known that there were differences within the Ceylon Communist Party on issues such as the position on the so called parliamentary road to socialism and on the united front with the LSSP. Shan protested his expulsion as an act that violated the party´s constitution. In October 1963, he issued a statement that the struggle would continue and identified the following immediate tasks: a) publication of Sinhala translations of important Marxist theoretical works, b) publication of ‘Kamkaruwa’ and ‘Thozhilali’ (the Sinhala and Tamil editions of CTUF’s paper ‘Worker’) as high quality weeklies and make them daily papers within one year, c) publication of good quality Sinhala and Tamil Marxist theoretical periodicals, and d) build up the unity of the trade union movement and establish a united trade union centre as quickly as possible, and d) mobilise peasants and create a worker-peasant alliance.
The CP finally split in two in January 1964 into pro-Moscow and pro-Peking wings. Shan, Premalal Kumarasiri and several other leaders condemned and rejected the pro-Moscow revisionist line of the party and the leadership of Dr S A Wickremasinghe and Peter Keuneman and created a separate central committee and announced the formation of the Communist Party (Peking).
The CP (Peking) earned a reputation due to its revolutionary political line and the militant struggles it organised and led. The CTUF and the plantation workers’ union provided a strong working class base for the new party, which was also able to win over large sections of the youth league of the original CP. Even though it preached armed struggle as a justifiable means to achieve its goal, the party did not take any step towards such a struggle on a national scale. However, Tamil militant movements were influenced by the party´s theoretical defence of armed struggle and, even more importantly, by the practical experience of the ‘Mass movement for the eradication of untouchability’ launched by the party in Jaffna in 1966. In the face of violence unleashed by the upper castes and the police, this movement metamorphosed into an armed uprising of the oppressed castes led by Sanmugathasan. Of all the struggles for social justice in Sri Lanka, this was perhaps the most successful in terms of the results achieved.
There had been discussions and debates among historians, Marxist intellectuals and left activists regarding Shan’s contributions to revolutionary communism. However, he was the undisputed founding leader and guide of the Maoist movement in this country. Shan´s close friend and leading English journalist and editor, Mervyn de Silva, nicknamed him Mao tse – Shan, with a touch of humour in an article. Shan visited China during the Cultural Revolution and addressed a gathering of thousands of Red Guards. His writings on Marxism Leninism and Mao’s Thoughts were published in ‘The Bright Red Banner of Mao tse–Tung’s Thought’ which had an international readership. He served as a key link between various Marxist-Leninist parties and the Communist Party of China. He maintained close contact with the Naxalite movement in India.
After the insurrection launched by the JVP in 1971, Shan was arrested and detained for one year. He was vehemently critical of the JVP, which originated from within the CP (Peking). He was arrested because of his open advocacy of armed struggle and for being a political mentor to JVP’s leader Rohana Wijeweera. While in detention, Shan wrote a book entitled ‘A Marxist Looks at the History of Ceylon’ in English, which was published in 1972. Sinhala and Tamil translations of the book were published later.
China´s support for the Srimavo Bandaranaike government after the 1971 insurrection had adverse political consequences for the CP (Peking). Some groups within the party tried to capture the leadership when Shan was out of the country. Their moves were defeated after Shan returned. Some of the expelled persons formed a new party which later splintered into different factions. Some of them turned into supporters of the United Front government of Mrs Bandaranaike while the CP (Peking) continued on its path of struggle.
After the death of Mao in 1976, the ‘Gang of Four’ which firmly followed his policies began to lose support within the Chinese party. In Sri Lanka, the groups that broke away or expelled from the CP (Peking) supported China’s domestic and foreign policies, while Shan´s party firmly supported Mao´s and the Cultural Revolution’s legacies. Shan actively devoted himself to the task of establishing the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM). He rejected Enver Hoxha´s critique of Mao and offered a detailed reply in ‘Enver Hoxha Refuted’, which was published by RIM.
CP (Peking) was reorganised and renamed as Ceylon Communist Party (Maoist) in 1991. Shan led the party until his death in 1993. The last public event in which he participated was a press conference organised by the International Emergency Committee of the RIM in support of the leader of the Communist Party of Peru (Shining Path) Dr Abimael Guzman in London. Shan passed away on 8 February 1993 at the age of 74 in England where he was receiving medical treatment while staying with his daughter, who is an acupuncture specialist.