“The class struggle is only way to achieve the freedom and emancipation…”- Siritunga Jayasuriya (Siri)

Siritunga Jayasuriya

Today he is being interviewed by Samantha Rajapaksa, an activist in the field of Public Sector Education Trade Unions (C.G.T) in France.

Samantha Rajapaksa

He is Siritunga Jayasuriya (Siri)

He is Siritunga Jayasuriya (Siri). Today he is the General Secretary of the United Socialist Party. Siri became a member of the youth society of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in 1964. In 1965 he obtained membership of LSSP under the signature of Dr. N. M. With Perera. He passed the theoretical and practical test of the party to get the membership. In early 1970s, he joined the struggle against the class collaboratory politics of the party with colleagues such as Dr. Wickramabahu and Prof. Sumane. As a result, in late 1972, Bahu and Sumane were expelled from the party for creating alternative factions within the party. In 1974 they formed a group called “Vama Samasamajaya”.

At that time Siri was working in the Ceylon Transport Board. Following the decision of the party, Left LSSP, he quit his job and selected full-time revolutionary politics as his career. From there, Comrade Siritunga took another radical step and ran as the Left LSSP candidate in the July 1975 Colombo South by-election. His opponent in that by-election was the pro-imperialist Yankee Dickey alias J.R. Jayawardena. He worked in the Nava Sama Samaja Party until the creation of the Marxist workers’ Tendency in the early 1990s, and later formed the United Socialist Party in 1997.

How is politics amid Covid 19?

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 for the failure of the bourgeoisie. Although bourgeois leaders have shown that privatization is the only solution to the crisis facing capitalism, without the state free health care system, people would have died like animals in the face of the corona epidemic. Despite the limitations imposed by the epidemic, we are carrying left revolutionary politics amidst a very difficult environment.

Did your politics originate from the LSSP?

Yes. Lanka Sama Samaja Party is my first political party. I can comment from different angles about my life before that. However, in short, I was born in Thimbirigasyaya, Colombo 5. My father is a worker and we are a working class family. Farther worked at Millers Co. of Colombo and he was a trade union leader of the LSSP. He was a strong LSSP activist in 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 collaboratory politics?

As I mentioned above, we have been addicted to 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 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 weekend were fascinating, controversial and heaty. 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 main 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 organizational action as a result.

There are many comrades who have joined with us in the political struggle against the coalition. Some of them are no longer alive. Among them were 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, apart from building the revolutionary party needed for socialist transformation. For example, Vikramabahu is currently working with the UNP. Sumanasiri represents 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 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. Kris Rodrigo, Dr. Kumar David, Prof. Vijaya Dissanayake, Dr. Nalin de Silva and many others were among them. Moreover, trade unions such as 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 were attached to the NSSP. 

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. Defeat of the 1980 strike paved the way to implement neo-liberal socio-economic programme to all bourgeois leaders, from Jayawardene to Gotabhaya.

Why did you quit NSSP?

As mentioned in the above question, I am a founding member of the NSSP. Its history goes back to the history of the Left LSSP, which began in 1970. in December 1977 we started our activities as the new leadership of the LSSP. During this period there was a pressure from the membership to build a unity among Left parties to face the repression of JR Jayewardene. Accordingly, a discussion was commenced among the LSSP, Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CP), JVP, Bala Tampoe’s Revolutionary Workers’ Party and us, LSSP New Leadership. At this meeting Leader of the LSSP Colvin R. de Silva stated that there can’t 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 name was an obstacle to building the unity of the Left, we (the new leadership of the LSSP) 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 name of the New leadership of the LSSP as Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP). At the Central Committee meeting held on September 15th and 16th, 1979, our proposal to change the name as NSSP and join the Left Unity was approved by majority vote. Following the defeat in the Central Committee, Vikramabahu resigned and I was elected as the founding Secretary of the NSSP by a majority vote.

Your next question is why I quit the NSSP. It has a very long history. Nevertheless, I will try to give a brief answer to your question. There were several critical theoretical questions within the NSSP, and the split was due to political differences. None of the personal grievances were relevant.

1. A debate arose within the party about the class nature of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP) which was started in 1985 under the leadership of Vijaya Kumaratunga? The NSSP leadership, including Vikramabahu, Vasudeva, Neil and Linus, were of the opinion that Vijaya’s party was a working class party. According to their view, SLMP had a large working class base than LSSP had in 1964 under the leadership of NM. Accordingly, the NSSP leadership defined SLMP of Vijaya Kumaratunga as the Sri Lanka’s foremost labour party.

Comrades KW Jayatilleke, Satyapala, Quintus Liyanage who are members of the NSSP Central Committee, including myself rejected this idea, as it is a purely anti-Marxist empiricist idea. Our idea was that SLMP is a radical, militant petty bourgeoise party.

2. 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, are more progressive compared to JR Jayawardena.

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 pessimistic nature. With this a long debate started within the party about the nature of new imperialism.

3. As a result of The Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 signed between Rajiv and JR 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 states:

“We accept this Indo-Lanka agreement. We support it. We will do everything we can to ensure that it works properly.” (I have all documents to prove) This position of the NSSP including Vikramabahu, was total distortion of Marxism.

Thus, under the leadership of the above-mentioned comrades, including myself, we 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  “minority group.”

This debate became so heated when the NSSP leadership agreeing to take up arms from the UNP government, as a proposal came from the Communist Party, to protect from the onslaught launched by the Desapremi Janatha Vyaparaya (DJV- Patriotic People’s Movement). The patriotic movement affiliated to the JVP continued to assassinate left-wing extremists. 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 decision. 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 NSSP to our group. (There is a detailed description about this matter in the book “A debate among left, reality and dreams). 

Didn’t you also responsible 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 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 Tampoe walked out of the meeting protesting the decision to strike. Just after midnight on that day, the rest of the union leaders decided to call a general strike from July 17.

The history of the 1980 strike is very long. I have published a book containing all the documents related to the 1980 strike. The book goes on to describe how the JVP betrayed the strike and how Bala Tampoe’s Ceylon Mercantile Workers’ Union fled from he strike. It should be noted that no one has challenged its 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 operated by NSSP as well as it is responsible for the defeat of the strike. It can be seen that the NSSP led the class to take a strike decision from a relatively extreme political position under the influence of its militant leaders at the time. In fact, there was a subjective situation arisen to take a counter step to JR’s repressive program. However, instead of advancing the strike step by step, it was a tactical mistake to call a general strike all at once. 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.

(Excerpt: 80 Strike Book, page 25)

“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. 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 a humble measure even after the strike. Unfortunately, the NSSP leadership did not understand the defeat of the strike as a defeat for its political intervention. It therefore missed the responsibility of wiping out 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 complete.

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 mobilizing the working class to counter the racist terror of the DJV led by the JVP. Accordingly, left wing activists were able to work on one front against Sinhala racism. However, since the United Socialist Front worked with the government and India to implement Provincial Councils, it could not be able to be the alternative force for 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 no 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 organizations affiliated to the 4th International, founded by Trotsky in 1938, are still active. It seems that this is not the time to discuss about those internationals. 

However, I must comment on the question you have raised about CWI. You have also asked me about the recent split in CWI which we are also affiliated to. The debate, which began in 2018 in CWI. ended in a split. The crisis began with the Irish branch leadership breaking away with centralized traditions and secretly obtaining members’ electronic computer information. At the same time, it was confirmed that they have abandoned the revolutionary socialist program and Trotsky’s transitional complex program. Attempts by the International Secretariat to rectify these issues failed. Instead, they succumbed to the pressures of identity politics and turned their backs on the working class and 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 in to women’s rights, LGBTQ question and the environment. There can’t be any debate about our intervention in these matters. At the same time, we must understand the positive features of such movements, as well as the multiracial (mixed-class) nature of them, and intervene to integrate those agitations with the socialist program and the working class movement.

This controversy was discussed in other branches of the international community, and eventually this group has moved away from the CWI and formed a separate international.

There have been numerous attempts to unite the Trotskyist international organizations in the world. In addition to uniting as individuals, they also sought to unite as organizations 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 can’t be any debate about uniting internationals must not be abandoned and move forward. But the reality is that it is not an easy task.

I say you are a sectarian?

It was through this question of you that I first came to know that there was a question regarding 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 for left unity.

  1. In 2012 the Frontline Socialist Party which split from the JVP, proposed to hold a United May Day just about 10 days before the May Day. At that time we have made arrangements to even pasting posters for our 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 emphasized that holding a sudden May Day without discussing a plan and a course of action was inappropriate for the long-term future of the Left. Specially we need to think deeply about whether we can hold a united front May Day rally next year. We are also of the view that holding a separate May Day in 2013, which gave rise to great hope by celebrating May Day jointly in 2012, was a major obstacle to the future of left unity.

B. The next issue is the discussion on 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 program. The disagreement of the Frontline Party for this proposal was the main reason for the breakdown of this discussion. We are of the view that it is 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 most important election, such as the presidential election.

C. In 2018, a discussion began on the merger of the 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 organizations freely and openly participated in the discussion, and some of the comrades on both sides raised serious questions about the unification. Nevertheless, the leadership of the two organizations agreed to take steps to unite the two organizations. Com. Sumanasiri Liyanage also participated in this discussion.

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

The next round of discussion took place at the Left Voice office. Unexpectedly, we were surprised to find that the comrades of “Axaya” 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 organizations. It is unfortunate that the original intention for the merger of two organizations had negated by transforming it into a common discussion between the other groups.

Meanwhile, Comrade Sumanasiri brought an important proposal to print the two newspapers ‘Wame Handa’ and ‘Rathu Tharuwa’ as a joint newspaper. It was agreed to split the front page and the last 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 questions among leftist organizations. Among them there are solvable questions 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 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 and we were able to win one seat from the Colombo District and we decided to appoint Comrade Wickramarabahu 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 decision of the other parties in the front do 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 publications 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 bourgeois tyranny 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 nationalizing the massive monopoly of the economy. Therefore, the destruction of the environment is not something that can be solved within the bourgeoisie system. Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest man, stated few years ago that the destruction of the environment could not be solved within the bourgeoisie system. Therefore, it is essential that the struggle for a socialist world of product design based on human needs be integrated with the environmental question.

National or ethnic issue is a major issue in Sri Lanka. Should not we 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 by with the Sinhala majority vote, has not been able to resolve the issue.

The National Question is a creation of the bourgeoisie. But with the failure of the bourgeoisie to solve the national question in under developed 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 right to self-determination. The absurd notion of “Equal rights” to cover up the denial of the right to self-determination is presented with the intention of subduing the Sinhala racist politics that lurks within 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 center 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 working people of Sri Lanka, especially trade union movement 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 gathering to celebrate May Day under the slogan “All workers in the world must unite”, have been working separately since the next day.

It is essential to build joint committees within the working class at the workplace level to defeat the common demands of the working class as well as to defeat state repression. First, a joint committee of the trade union leadership should be formed and it should be made a regular meeting center. It can send an important message to the workers in the workplace. We can understand how the unions can unite in the face of political differences and union divisions by a study of 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 only through the class struggle. Racist politics will be used to break the path of 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 the class collaborationist coalition politics that began in 1964. The old LSSP and Communist parties are mired in coalition and racist politics and are heading for 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.

Interviewed by Samantha Rajapaksa

One thought on ““The class struggle is only way to achieve the freedom and emancipation…”- Siritunga Jayasuriya (Siri)

  • April 12, 2021 at 1:29 pm

    An excellent interview, which brings forth some of the intricate issues on the ‘National Question in the Island of Sri Lanka. The role of the Left has been discussed in detail and also chronologically it has been explained, where the Left missed the bus. Reminding the great General Strike of 1980 Comrade Sirithunga has not only brought out the lessons that need to be learnt but has also warned about its inadequacies and follies. Thanks to the interviewer who has meticulously asked the right questions. As a keen observer of the Island country’s politics for the last four decades, I was thrilled to find some of the details that I had missed. Thanks to both the interviewer and interviewee.

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