25 March, 2023


Whither The Old Left?

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

Today marks the 62nd anniversary of the Hartal the first mass uprising after independence. In these transformative times it is only appropriate that we heed the advice of Marx and indulge in some “self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.”

On 12th August 1953 politics was taken to the streets.

Sixty three years ago, for the first time in Independent Sri Lanka nine people died and a Prime Minister resigned as a result of mass agitation.

On the advice of International lenders, the UNP government of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake who was returned to office with a massive mandate an year before, announced the intention of reducing the state subsidy of the price of rice.

The left parties spearheaded by the Lanka Sama Samaja party called for an island wide ‘Hartal’ a one day mass action of the people. The subsequent turbulence resulted in police firing killing nine.

The left opposition concluded that the “ Hartal showed that, given a revolutionary leadership, the masses could soon shed their parliamentary illusions and enter the road of mass struggle leading to the revolution itself.”

Colvin hartalSeventeen years later, in 1970 Dr Colvin R De Silva Minister of Plantations Industry [ He was not yet the Minster for Constitutional Affairs] in an interview with this writer then working for the ‘Observer’ defined the purpose and described the impact of the event where the ‘Old Left’ took their struggle to the streets. This was the time when the Marxist parties were on the Parliamentary path to socialist revolution. The LSSP by then had resolved its internal contradictions between its pragmatic and dogmatic wings respectively led by NM and Colvin.

Describing the events 17years earlier comrade Colvin warmed up to his subject. “It was a genuine uprising or rebellion by the people”. He elaborated “Politics is not a game which is played with human beings as pawns. The aim of political parties is or should be, the achievement of the leadership of the people in the cause of service to the people and it can never be service of the people to deceive the people.

This was eight months before the cataclysmic events of 1971. Eight months later, in an interview with the Ceylon Daily News of 30th April 1971 he described the JVP uprising an assault on Parliamentary democracy.  “The country was facing an unusual and unprecedented situation created by a group of narrow-minded people, conspiratorially organized, who had launched an effort by force of arms to displace the duly constituted government of the day in order to replace the entire system of parliamentary democracy.” [Ceylon Daily News April 30, 1971.]

The subject is of great contemporary relevance as it speaks of political morality. It is equally significant in the context of the JVP announcing its program of creating ‘rich human beings ‘ or as Marx hoped the creation of a society which permitted the development of “rich human beings” who are equipped to develop their capacities and their potential.

In these transformative times the interview given by Dr.De Silva sheds retrospective wisdom on where and why the left lost its bearings. It is reproduced here in full.
What was the great Hartal ?

The great Hartal of August 12th and 13th 1953 was a genuine uprising or rebellion of the mass of common people in our country.

It was a violent uprising, but generally speaking an unarmed uprising. The people in rebellion against a government, which they felt had cheated and deceived them at the 1952 general election were really engaging in a nationwide mass demonstration against the government.

They relied basically on their collective strength as an active human mass unitedly in motion. They only turned to violence when the government brought its forces of violence and repression against them, in a vain attempt to suppress the demonstration by cowing down the people. It was this violence of the government that converted what might have been a massive nationwide peaceful demonstration in to a rebellion.

Why did it happen?

The causes of the great Hartal have many lessons for Politicians, Political Parties and Governments.

Politics is not a game which is played with human beings as pawns. The aim of political parties is or should be, the achievement of the leadership of the people in the cause of service to the people and it can never be service of the people to deceive the people.

This was the crowning error of Mr. Dudley Senananayakes’s government in 1952. It cheated and deceived the people in the general election of that year in regard to the financial situation of the country and its intentions regarding the means of meeting the crisis.

It is forgotten now that Mr. Dudley Senanayake denied the crisis whose signs were already there. He also denied in advance that he would follow a policy of casting the main burden on the people, in the event of a crisis.

When after he came to power, he could no longer hide the crisis he also broke his word and cast the burden on the people.

The people therefore, felt cheated and deceived and since the UNP government was arrogant and drunk with power, the people were moved to express their resentment against the government. This was the cause of the great Hartal and not just the question of the price of rice.

What was the outcome of the Hartal?

The great Hartal transformed the politics of this country in a way which I believe, could not have happened otherwise at that time. Until the Hartal, there was among the masses themselves the deep belief that the UNP could not be pushed out of governmental power. The UNP was considered invincible as a parliamentary force.

That, in fact was, why the people turned to the Hartal as a means of protest and a method of demonstration against the government. However when the Government forced a confrontation, the people in their mass drew upon their natural courage and their inexhaustible collective strength and fought back.

And with much sacrifice they won their battle. They held the streets against the police and the soldiery for a whole day on August 1953.

Thereafter they had to retreat and take a beating. But they were no more frightened of governmental power in the old way.

They realized that there lay in the mass a power which could be brought in to action against any government when the masses were moved sufficiently to act unitedly and massively. The sense of invincibility was broken.

I have no doubt that this was one of the basic and strongest factors in the electoral overturn in 1956.

What part did the LSSP play in bringing about this turning point of the socialist movement in Ceylon?

A united front was achieved to bring the masses in to action. And everywhere there was not an LSSPer or a person in the Sama Samaja movement who was not in the forefront of the struggle. In particular the Sama Samaja youth front played a vital role. I can demonstrate that where ever there was a Sama Samaja youth league, there was also a militant mass action in the nature of an uprising. The Hartal is one of the glorious pages in the history of the LSSP. We still draw strength and inspiration from that experience. “

The left did not draw either strength or inspiration from the ‘Hartal’ for long. The 1971 JVP insurrection and the 1972 constitutional experiment changed history. ‘History never come to us’ pure’ wrote E.H.Carr. Since it cannot exist in a pure form “they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concern should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it.” Dr. De Colvin R de Silva was an acknowledged historian.

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Latest comments

  • 9

    Another interesting piece from Mr.De Alwis!

    I don’t know how old he was then, but I was in my mid-teens and (still) in thrall to my two siblings, lifetime believers in what the Fourth International expounded(at least parts of it!)

    The Communist Party, after supporting the uprising, bailed out, probably on the dictation of the Soviet Union and, ultimately, the LSSP did the same, its leadership having realised that the revolt could really upset the political apple cart (and the comfortable middle existences of its leadership). When push came to shove, the vast majority of the LSSP’s leadership belonged to the bourgeoisie that they so loudly condemned! There were exceptions, but those were precisely that, and, in later years, the “old guard” continued to prevail and pushed those with revolutionary “tendencies” into the political wilderness to which they, too, were ultimately consigned by the JVP who had no depth in the matter of political philosophy but effectively catered to massive frustration on the part of a significant part of the young Sinhala-educated and, justifiably angry youth looking for some sort of salvation.

    However, as critical as one might be of the LSSP, upto its collaboration with Sirima Bandaranaike, it did present a political alternative to the post-colonial country that Sri Lanka was. What it is now, led by a senile bootlicker of Mahinda Rajapaksa is beyond description!

  • 10

    Looks like The Old Left is now well and truly ‘withered’ and if not already extinct, an endangered species on its way to extinction.

    Just look at its pathetic remnants, exemplified by the miserable Vasudeva!

  • 1

    Wither the old left ?

  • 9

    This article must be presented to the pseudo off spring of the old left Prof Twister Vitharane.

    Mahinda is a clever man. He cut a big cake for the Twister on his 80th birthday at a Cabinet meeting and Twister melted like burning candle stick.

    If Mahinda can twist the Prof Twister Vitharane he can Twist Ranil at his finger tip. We will all know the 18th.

    • 6

      Late Dr No Money Pereira must be restless in his grave to hear about his mantle carrier Prof Twister Vitharane.

  • 7

    Left and right don’t matter so much now.

    We, the people know that the Rajapaksas finishing off the LTTE is not a reason why they should be feared. In fact that confidence was present in a sufficient number of people for the country to shake off their yoke in January 2015.

    All that remains is to deliver the coup de grace on Monday the 17th; however, putting it like that gives too much importance to corrupt politicians. What is before us is a more positive and challenging task.

    We, the people have been able to sit back and take a good look at what is on offer. We MUST identify inspirational (preferably young) leaders, and persuade lazier voters to turn up at the polling booths early so that we make no mistake about whom we choose. By now, we should all have a list of candidates for our district.

  • 10

    Emil van der Poorten

    I was exactly 28 years! 13th august I turn 73!
    Today the LSSP is held hostage by a nephew of a Marxist. That makes a difference.

    • 3

      I really enjoy your writing but your math seems to leave something to be desired because if you were 28 in 1953, you’d be 90 this year, but you say you’ll be 73 on the 13th of this month???

  • 5

    I remember that day. I was 7+ years old and my father ( an officer in the then Excise Striking Force) was in uniform. We were driving down to Colombo from Badulla through Ratnapura, to attend my Aunt’s wedding. My mother had left a week earlier by train. I was running a fever. The roads were empty and there were road blocks manned by striking workers, at intervals. We were stooped frequently and my father had to explain I had a fever that required medical attention.. A few touched my forehead to make sure. Once we reached Ratnapura, where my father had to carry out some inspections, the going got tough. My father had to remove his Karki coat and hide it under the car seat. However, my fever came in handy to get us through. We reached Colombo just in time for the wedding.

    I yet remember how effective the hartal was and how well behaved the men who manned the barricades were. I yet remember Dudley Senanayake resigning his premiership citing a stomach ailment. This was the second political memory I have. The first was of course D.S.Senanayake’s death while horse riding.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 0

    The interview with Colvin was in 1970.

  • 0

    Mr Emil VP , the figures add up if Sarath is referring to his age at the time he wrote his article ( 1972 ?), elementary.

  • 0

    Old Left have progressively degenerated. What is left behind is toxic residual.

    The new left the toxic residuals who are with MaRa will take ST to ruins if their hero MaRa comes back as an MP and the PM.

    Three of the gang of 4 who advocate for bring back MaRa were part of the old left.
    They are Dr. Dinesh Gunawardne, Prof Vitharane, ‘Pa ‘ word Dr.Vasudeva Nanayakara.
    They must re-visit history at leat for the following :

    1. 1936 – the stand NM Perera and Philip Gunawardne took on language issue.

    2. 1944 – the stand JRJ took on the official language issue

    3. 1956 – LSSP ‘ s parity of status

    4. 1965 – Old Left’s Coalition with SLFP.

    5. 1972 – Colin R De Silva ‘s republican constitution and in particular the removal of special provision act.

    6. 1970 -71 Old Left’s Stand on crushing JVP

    7. 1988 -89 Old Left’s Stand on crushing JVP

  • 1

    The history of the old left is one of a mountain gradually diminishing to become a mole hill purely for selfish reasons of its leaders!

    Sengodan. M

  • 0

    Did you not visit the cemetary at Borella. They are there.They come out at Night.

  • 0

    It is nice to see soft conversation while commenting… luckily No coonection to Madamulana……

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