Failure of the brightest intellectuals of our time | Sunday Observer

Failure of the brightest intellectuals of our time

1 November, 2020

On June 7, 1964 Lanka Sama Samaja Party, the leading Trotskyite political party, was facing its biggest crisis since it was launched in December, 1935.  It was a time when it was at the peak of its power. The Fourth International Secretariat in Paris was boasting that the Ceylon Branch, as it was known then, was the ‘world’s largest Trotskyite party’. The head of the 4th International, Michel Pablo and his associates like Pierre Frank had thrown  their weight behind Dr. N. M. Perera, the President. They did not want to alienate the ‘world’s largest Trotskyite Party’.

The New York Times ran a front-page story when Dr. N. M. Perera became the first Trotskyite to be elected as a mayor – the first significant political base won by any group of Trotskyites struggling in a world dominated by Stalin. The LSSP had also beaten the pro-Stalinist Communist Party into the second place in the field of trade unions. The English-speaking intelligentsia, particularly the English Department of the Peradeniya University, were, by and large, Trotskyites. Bala Tampoe was the king-ping of the powerful Ceylon Mercantile Union and his word was law to all its members. The mercantile sector was a pawn in his hands.

The young Marxists who advanced to form the LSSP in 1935 had also won their battle to dominate the field of trade unions by wresting power from  A. E. Goonesinha, the pioneering  trade union leader from the 20s, in the great strike of the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills in 1933. They never lost their grip on trade unions since then.

Besides, the Party was  packed with a glittering array of intellectuals known generally as ‘the golden brains’. Dr. N.M. Perera, for instance, hailing from the prestigious London School of Economics, had a double doctorate. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva gifted with oratorical skills and a critical mind for Marxian analysis seemed like a local replica of Leon Trotsky.

Anti-imperialist revolutionaries

Above all, as anti-imperialist revolutionaries they shot into the limelight almost overnight in the thirties and the forties and D. S. Senanayake, the master craftsman of politics of his time, devoted the best of his energies to keep them out of power. It was a time when communism posed the biggest threat to the state. Communalism came later to eclipse the Marxist theoreticians. The following footnote also adds some spice to the story: Though it was not admitted publicly, the LSSP had subtly replaced the first President, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, a man from the Salagama caste, with Dr. N. M. Perera who was from the higher Goigama caste.

That apart, in 1964 the Marxist Party which set out to overthrow the British imperialists and (quote) the local comprador class represented by the Senanayakes and the Bandaranaikes (unquote) was in the throes of an ideological crisis that threatened its very existence: to join or not to join Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government. Can a Marxist Party ideologically committed to overthrow a bourgeois regime through revolution ever coalesce with a regime that is installed in Parliament to protect and promote anti-working class and pro-bourgeois agenda? The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) (1951), which came out of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Maha Sabha (SMS) (1935-37) had come a long way and swept the polls leaving the Marxists way behind. Both were nationalists. Both were into mass politics. Both were peddling their own brands of socialist politics. But the Sinhala Maha Sabha which metamorphosed into SLFP made giant  strides while the Marxists were lagging behind the two leading bourgeois parties – the UNP and the SLFP.

Why? Why did Marxism fail in Sri Lanka? The Marxists who claimed that they had the key to the hidden doors of history and opened them easily failed to capture power through the parliamentary process while the SMS, born in the same year, had succeeded with comparative  ease. Why? Initially, the Trotskyites were the romantic heroes of nationalism, who took the British Raj head-on. Their escape from Bogambara jail in Kandy fired the imagination of the nation. They won the hearts and minds when they confronted the British.

They were seen as defenders and protectors of the nation. It was not their Marxism that impressed the masses. It was their nationalism. The masses had only a vague notion of class warfare. But, as usual, the theoretically misguided Marxists misread history and failed to read the signs of the time. The two great political waves that moved Asia – both in India and China – were fundamentally driven by nationalism. Gandhi-Nehruvian politics that fought the British was plain nationalism. No one disputes that. At the root of the Chinese revolution too was nationalism. Marxism was merely the outer-covering that wrapped the anti-Japanese, anti-West politics that was humiliating and destroying Chinese sovereignty, pride and glory.

Of course, Mao was fighting  on many fronts, local as well as foreign. While fighting Chiang Kai Shek on the local front, he was also waging wars against the barbaric regime of Japanese imperialists committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Nanking and  in the Japanese-occupied territories. The Chinese masses could  relate to that directly than to abstract Marxism. Added to this was Mao’s ideology –i.e., Marxism with Chinese characteristics -- which helped in  guiding and organising the Communist  Party and the Long March. Mao’s Long March into the Yenan caves and his triumphant return to Beijing was through the country side. It was his bond with the peasantry that made the Long March possible. The two together formed the backbone  of the Chinese Revolution.

In fact, the tried and tested method was to capture the countryside first and then attack the city by surrounding it. It was the peasantry that was in  the  forefront of the Indian independence movement too. It was the nationalism of Ho Chi Minh who bonded with the peasantry that made his victory possible  in Vietnam. The mighty Western powers, with their sophisticated fire  power, never could win over the will  of the  peasantry. The workers were there not as the engine of the revolution as envisaged by Marx but  as a back-up force to the revolutionary peasants leading in the front.

The local Marxists, obsessed with the theory of the workers being the force that drives revolutions, were focused on the workers in  the city ignoring the peasantry. The road to power was through the  villages armed with the ballot that came with the Donoughmore Constitution. Besides, in the post-colonial period victory belonged to those who knew how  to ride the waves of nationalism. In  the colonial period the confrontational politics of anti-colonial nationalism went a long way to raise the image of LSSPers as national heroes. The Communist Party lagged behind because they backed the British in World War II following the Soviet line. The anti-British Surya Mal movement, the counter to the Poppy Day, supportive of the British war efforts, combined with social services rendered by the young Marxists in combating the scourge of malaria, won the hearts and mind of the villagers up to a point. For instance, it worked in Ruwanwella for Dr. Perera but not beyond that.

The Marxist agenda did not  fit into the national issues that came up in the post-colonial period. Bogged down in Marxist dogma they misread the rising waves of nationalism. They failed to grasp the grassroots forces that were driving the national agenda. Obsessed with class interpretations of history they stuck to Marxist theories believing that they could  ride into power on the backs of the workers when the power of  making and unmaking kings had shifted to the peasantry.

One  of their objectives was to empower the masses. The Donoughmore Constitution had empowered the masses, for the first time, with universal franchise. “The history of a revolution is for us first of all the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny,” wrote Leon Trosky in The History of the Russian Revolution. In Sri Lanka the masses entered ‘the realm of rulership’ without going through a revolutionary process. This stage was reached in 1931 with the introduction of universal franchise.

And it has far-reaching consequences to political process in  the decades to  come. Gerry Healy, Britain’s leading Trotskyite theoretician, allied to the Fourth International, hit the nail on the  head when he wrote in two essays, dealing with the ‘entry’ of the LSSP into the Coalition government.

He said: “It is no accident of history that in no country where universal franchise obtains has there been a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist class. Though mass struggles leading to the overthrow of capitalism are conceivable, in point of fact such situations have never yet arisen, because the franchise has placed in the hands of the workers a vehicle for achieving power. Universal franchise one must admit has tended to blunt the edge of mass struggle. Militant working class actions will continue to occur, but they do not reach the heights necessary for wresting power…”

This was one of the telling arguments that defeated the ‘Revolutionary wing’ at the New Town Hall meeting on June 7, 1964. Dr. N. M. Perera used it to convince the majority in the Hall. Frank Pierre had flown from Paris, especially to play his role of backing Dr. Perera.

He was waiting impatiently there with journalists, waiting to be called in by Leslie Goonewardene. In  the end, Dr. Perera’s wing won the day. He had, of course, packed the hall with his delegates from Ruwanwella, his electorate. One of them was the Lake House Correspondent who, as a delegate, had access to the proceedings at New Town Hall. We were relying on him to feed us  with  what was going on inside the New Town Hall. I was deeply impressed by the line which argued that no  revolution had taken place in a democracy where there is universal franchise. In other words, there was no need of a revolution where the masses had direct access ‘to the realm of rulership over their own  destiny.’

The decision of the LSSP to join the Coalition Government was the beginning  of the end of the Trotskyites. They were a collective of brilliant political activists of the day genuinely committed  to change the world. They were idealists with  a mission. But  they were basically middle-class, arm chair critics, without the fire and the  passion that energised and activated the Maos and Ho Chi Minhs of Asian revolutions.

They were quite content to win a few trade unions  and parliamentary seats without going deep into the field and motivate, train and organise a revolutionary movement. Besides, their bitter rivalries for personal glory and grab for power, all wrapped in abstract Marxist theories, fragmented the Left into irreconcilable divisions that sapped their energy. So, when the Trotskyites, the most formidable of the Left-wing, decided to throw in their lot with the feudal remnant  of the new capitalist class it sealed their fate.  


Their failure is  in betraying their own principles. In a sense, they can be excused because they failed to read the overwhelming forces that were leading the nation. Like all the other movements that  failed in the post-independent years the Trotskyites were making a futile bid to drag the  nation against the flow of the  historical forces that refused to move away from democratic centralism that withstood all forces attacking it from all sides. What held the nation  together in the tumultuous years since independence was power of democratic centralism deriving its inspiration from Sinhala-Buddhism.

The Marxists and their lumpen successors, the JVPers, moved heaven and earth to swing  the nation  in the direction of the never-never land of a socialist  utopia. In the North the Tamil separatist gathered collectively, throwing  in all their resources, local and foreign, to dismantle the nation and take a part of it into their ethnic enclave.

The Right-wing made a futile bid to take over power and make it a client state for  its masters in  the West. The hired hacks in academia and NGOs, chipped away at the spiritual and the moral bases of the nation, pretending to be the gurus who  can prescribe the panacea for all ills of the nation. On top of it all, the Indians too marched in to impose their will under cover of restoring peace and justice to only one minority group – I repeat, only one minority group --  at the expense of all other communities.  These major movements that shook the nation in  the tumultuous years were direct assaults on the democratic centre resting on the age-old foundations of Sinhala-Buddhism. After 72 years of devastating forces ramming the centre it has stood solidly, with some dents of course, like the Sri Pada. After journeying through 72 years of trials and tribulations it has finally come home to confirm that the democratic centre can be attacked – history is never complete without attacks from enemies -- but not destroyed.

The comprehensive victory of the Rajapaksas in the presidential and  parliamentary fora stands out as a convincing argument of history having arrived at the completion  of a full cycle. It is a historical force that came out of the will of the people. It rejected the best of imported theories that promised to deliver the nation from its  evils.

The failure of the Marxists is by far the best example of history rejecting bogus  theories and finally opting  for sustenance and growth on the roots of the past on which the present survives paving the way for the  future.

It seems that history gave the theoreticians their chance to prove the worth of their intellectual merits / capacities in the Yahapalanaya regime. At no time before had the intellectuals and  other assorted members  of the civil society played such a critical role as in crafting and propping up the  Yahapalanaya regime.

They became stakeholders in the rise and survival of the Yahapalanaya regime. In the end, no other state had come crashing down as the state created and backed by the so-called intellectuals.

Why did they fail? They made the same mistake as the other  intellectuals who attempted to take the nation away from its historical and traditional moorings.

One of the most lamentable tragedies of  the nation  is the failure of  our intellectuals to guide, or lead, the nation  out of the crises it faces. Consider, for instance, the  way the  intellectuals handled the 33-year-old Vadukoddai war (1976 – 2009) declared by the Tamil leadership in Vadukoddai.

Which NGO, academic, or  political scientists ever produced a viable solution to end the war? In fact, when the war was nearing its end Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu was leap-frogging  from one Western capital to another to stop  the war claiming it to be the solution to end the carnage. It was moral hypocrisy of the lowest kind. He never lifted a finger to stop the war when Prabhakaran was winning the war. His moral conscience pricked him  only when  the Tamils were losing  the war.

The failure of our intellectuals to be honest, to be objective and to acknowledge the inexorable forces of history has been one of the causes that dragged the nation into the crises it faced from  time to time.

They know that their fake theories have failed. They know that democratic centralism has proved to be the most viable  force available under all circumstances. They also should  know now that there is no alternative to it in the foreseeable future either. After all the intellectual have tried everything from Marxism to neo-liberalism in their most favoured state of the Yahapalanaya-kos and failed.

One of the outstanding examples of a failed intellectual is my friend Dayan Jayatilleka. He is brilliant in  theorising, articulating, and narrating a version of events that suits  his agenda. Take his thesis on Castro. I must confess that I can comment on the gist of it derived from  reviews. According to what I’ve read he has gone to town praising Castro’s political adventure as an exemplary achievement of a Marxist revolutionary in  action.

There is, no doubt, that in the Cuban context prevailing under the corrupt regime of   Castro’s revolution was daring, romantic and appealing to the hearts and minds of the Cold War warriors looking  for Marxist heroes to prove the coming end of capitalism. But  what did the Cuban revolution achieve that Sri Lanka failed to achieve without a revolution? Free health services (one of the best compared to even  that of America), free education from kindergarten to the tertiary level, subsidised food, transport and services, and general welfare services were placed long before Castro’s revolution. The welfare state established by the Senanayakes and the Bandaranaikes – the reactionary bourgeois, in the Marxist jargon – was far superior to the reforms that Castro introduced to serve the poor of Cuba. What is most significant is that the Sri Lankan bourgeois gave all the welfare services that Castro gave within a democratic framework without imposing a family dictatorship. So which is superior? Democratic  centralism with comprehensive welfarism  or a family dictatorship that denied fundamental rights to its citizens? Sadly, Dayan’s intellectualism has been to serve narrow dogma and not the broad and complex realities that sweep  history.


The intellectuals today have withdrawn into their cells to bay at the moon shining in  the political firmament. Generally, they are collectively engaged  in crying wolf. The bankrupt  civil rights society, left high and dry by the failure of their ideal regime, Yahapalanaya, is wandering in the wilderness, hunting for the next rights issue. Fear-mongering is marketed as a political philosophy. They have yet to come to grips with the new turn of events that had rejected their analyses, predictions and solutions.

Of course, the days ahead are not going to be easy. They are hoping to exploit the difficulties that are facing the global community. They will blame it on the Rajapaksas. Addressing the coming political and economic crises is no different  from facing Covid-19: it’s not the  initiatives of the  government alone that can  solve it. It is the total participation and cooperation of  the nation that can  solve it.

It is, therefore, time to drop the  bunkum theories and buckle down to  some pragmatic  work that can  take us to a new future.