Trotskyism and reformism today

Important lessons drawn from

a critique of Sri Lankan socialists in the year 2004


Recently Chris Rodrigo sent a long letter and the following email correspondence to Siritunga Jayasuriya, General Secretary of the United Socialist Party (USP), Sri Lanka.

Chris Rodrigo (as is mentioned in the reply to this letter and email) was the person who first introduced, in the 1970s, the Sri Lankan comrades of the main opposition left group within the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) to the British Militant organisation and then to the Committee for a Workers’ International.

While in Britain, he was won to the ideas of the Militant (later the Socialist Party) and in the 1970s he facilitated the visits to Sri Lanka - of Ted Grant and, a little later, Peter Taaffe.

These led to the adherence to the CWI of the main opposition left group within the LSSP - the Vama Samasamaja.

Email from Chris Rodrigo:


I hope you would have contacted Shanta by now. It is interesting that you are having success in expanding your constituency (of electoral support).

But do you really think a socialist programme is meaningful in Sri Lanka ?

This is a major point of difference between us. I have been arguing from around 1990, if not earlier, that the best option for the working class and the forces of contemporary democracy in Sri Lanka is to have a thorough development of capitalism.

This is not what we have had or are getting at the present time. Initially everyone disagreed with me, but now I think that Shanta, Bahu, Kumar, Niel and many others have come round to this point of view. Only you and Vasu seem to think that there is a socialist alternative.

The fact that you are attracting support does not mean you are right. After all even the new evangelical Christian groups are attracting lots of people. Temporary success is not an indication of correctness.

I know you do not distinguish between the kind of capitalism I advocate and the capitalism we have already had. Broad and deep capitalism like in South Korea and Taiwan will solve the national question more easily, absorb the lakhs of unemployed young people and break the back of all chauvinist groups in the South and the North. Of course it is hard to get capitalism moving strongly in Sri Lanka; the bourgeoisie is weak and not really in control of the political processes or the state. That is why Left support is essential to move this process forward. The problems are worse in a country like Egypt which I have been studying very closely recently. But there is no other option at the present time.

Suppose your party and its supporters came to power, what would you do to solve the problems of the country? Suppose you even had the full support of the JVP and the mass forces of the SLFP and the UNP. What can you do to solve the problems of the country? If you wish to raise the living standards of working people, you have to produce services and goods that people abroad want to buy. Only then can SL afford to buy the essential goods that everyone seems to want these days. I am here including advanced health care services like what they deliver now to the rich only in places like Apollo. Redistributing the existing production of wealth in Sri Lanka can surely not solve this problem?

Redistribution without rapid growth can at best lead to a situation like in Cuba, which is hardly a great success story despite impressive gains in education and health care delivery. People in Cuba are terribly poor; ask SP Wicks, he has been there many times. There doctors work as tourist guides to make enough money to live.

In what way will your 'socialism' be different from what we have seen in Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba etc. Never before in history has any other social experiment failed as decisively as has the attempt to build socialism in backward countries. They have produced brutal dictatorships, some of which have been among the most barbaric in all history, like the Pol-pot regime and Mengistu in Ethiopian. The most successful, China is rapidly building a modern kind of capitalism. China is lucky: in most countries the experience of 'socialism' has been a step backward.

The reason for this is also so simple: it is industrial capitalism that has the historic task of disciplining people into organized activity and converting a peasant mass into modern, skilled individuals. You know from your own political work the difference between the work habits of industrial workers and people from rural backgrounds. No amount of work in political parties can change the latter into the former. The simple answer is that when you try to sidestep the capitalist market which is the disciplining force, socialist leaders end up by having to use police power. Which is more brutal? The pressure of the capitalist labour market or the arbitrary power of Stalinist bureaucracy. I for one will choose the former. Even so, no Stalinist power has actually succeeded in duplicating the historic role of the market. So it is not even a possibility worth considering at this point.

So the theoretical challenge is so very simple; if you are writing a response to my arguments, you have to answer the very simple arguments that I have outlined above. If possible, please discuss these with Shanta as well. I am not sure he will agree with everything I say here, but I think he may.

That is why I cannot support you in any way, politically or materially, in your programme. It would be like giving more drugs to a drug addict. While I respect your energy and integrity (honesty) and decades of dedication to social justice, I think you are basically misleading all the young people who follow you. We have known each other since 1975 I think and we have been close friends. You and I also speak very plainly to each other, so you will forgive me if I am very direct. I hope we can remain friends.