Permanent revolution theory still valid for Sri Lanka
The essence of the permanent revolution is that the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the neo-colonial world could not be carried through without the working class coming to power in alliance with the peasantry and then, having carried through this revolution, passing over to the socialist tasks on a national and international scale. (See the explanation of the theory of permanent revolution in ‘Cuba: Socialism and Democracy’ by Peter Taaffe and his introduction to the CWI history: ‘A Socialist World is Possible). The Russian Revolution was itself a confirmation of this theory. CR seems to forget this!
In formulating his analysis, Trotsky did not advocate that the case for socialism should wait until the "completion of the bourgeois-democratic tasks" (as explained earlier, he opposed Bernstein on this) but it should form part of the agitation and propaganda in laying the basis for the working class to come to power. Starting from an internationalist perspective the Trotskyist movement argued that the overthrow of landlordism and capitalism even in a small country like Sri Lanka could, particularly with a conscious socialist leadership, become the catalyst for similar movements in India and Pakistan, for instance and subsequently in other countries that could lay the basis for a socialist world.
CR makes the astonishing claim: "Even the subsequent collapse of the Left from 1997 to 2004 has got nothing to do with objective, class-economic movements. It derives mostly from the political failure of the Left and the mistakes of the NSSP in particular, which has been the most dynamic force in it". Having lacerated those responsible for this "political failure", he then states that he is not going to explain why this is taking place: "I am not trying to answer this point fully in this letter entirely, but just to initiate the discussion."
There is not an atom of originality in these arguments; they just happen to be advanced about 15 years after the renegades from Stalinism around the journal ‘Marxism Today’ supplied the right-wing social democrats in Britain with the theoretical ideas to underpin their attack on the left. These ideas of "post-Fordism" were widely peddled by this trend and found a ready audience amongst those travelling to the right in opposition to "crude Marxism", which still looked towards the working class as the main social force for change. CR indicates his flirtation with these ideas when he writes: "There are material, economic factors… in 1979, I presented a graph in which the percentage of votes polled by the Left in major elections from 1947 to 1977 was compared to the long-term fall in the ratio of industrial workers to the entire voting population." This idea, that the demise of the industrial working class would automatically diminish the power of the trade unions and the ideas of socialism was false to the core then and is even more so now.
While de-industrialisation has taken place in the advanced industrial countries (now rapidly de-industrialising), industry and the numbers and power of the industrial working class worldwide, did not fundamentally change. Moreover, even in those "de-industrialised" countries, the process of neo-liberalism – privatisation, lowering of wages, attempts to undercut the trade unions – has meant a proletarianisation of layers of the population who formerly were, or considered themselves, outside the ranks of the labour movement. The process is quite clear in the case of teachers, who have been extremely radicalised by the privatisation of education worldwide, civil servants and others. In Brazil, for instance, the collapse of industry did not mean the diminishing of support for the Workers Party but, on the contrary, in the 2002 elections led to Lula, the PT’s presidential candidate, achieving a higher popular vote than even George W Bush in the 2000 US presidential elections.
CR’s ideas, which equate the collapse of industry and the industrial working class with the dramatic undermining of socialist consciousness in the 1990s, are way off the mark. Having admitted that the collapse of Stalinism was a factor, as we have seen, he then claims that from 1977 to 2004 "objective" factors played little role. This is ludicrous and is at complete variance with the worldwide problems that were confronted not just by the Marxist and Trotskyist left in particular, but by the broader labour movement in general.
Ideological counter-revolution and attacks on the working class
The ideological counter-revolution – which the bourgeois were able to launch following the collapse of Stalinism – against "socialism", which they also falsely equated with Stalinism, had a profound effect on the leaders of the workers’ organisations. They became bourgeoisified. Moreover, the period that followed the collapse of Stalinism allowed the bourgeois to underpin their neo-liberal attacks on the working class. The centre of political gravity shifted towards the right.
Instead of combating this trend and hailing those who stood out against it, CR excoriates them. The same criteria that he employs would have found him attacking Marx and Engels in the long difficult period that followed the collapse of the 1848 revolutions, or Lenin in 1907-1912, or Trotsky in the late 1920s and 1930s. In all these instances, these giant theoreticians found themselves relatively isolated because of the objective circumstances. Trotsky went from being a central leader of the Russian Revolution and Communist International to heading a small, persecuted minority in the 1930s. Marx and Engels were in a minority all their lives and yet their refusal to bow to bourgeois pressures laid the basis for the workers’ movement throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in the Russian Revolution. None of these leaders did what CR advocates; they did not sacrifice the future socialism - the "tomorrow" of the working class - for "today", for short-term illusory policies and gains.
Sri Lankan politics
CR writes to Niel (14 April 2004): "I also met Siri: he does not see any need for change. He sees himself as being more realistic than Bahu, but believes that socialism is the answer to the problem, even the immediate problem in Sri Lanka." In the BBC interview, he (Siri) "further attributed his success to their (the USP’s) espousal of a clear, pure socialist platform". In the same correspondence CR writes: "Over the last 30 years or so every major struggle was seen by the NSSP as indicating the imminent collapse of capitalism."
We hold no brief for the NSSP leaders, particularly Bahu, who has swung from opportunism to ultra-leftism and back on many occasions. According to CR, he is now intending to convince all and sundry that the UNP has changed: "Under Ranil, the UNP has become more inclusive and democratic, according to what Bahu tells me. He says it has attracted 'social democratic' types recently, those who used to be considered 'Left' in the old days. As a result, he says that they are more attuned to a purely capitalist and less chauvinist programme which helped them reach out to the Tigers."
Whether or not the UNP is "more or less chauvinist" than the SLFP is not the decisive issue from the standpoint of the workers’ movement. It is a bourgeois party which may include some "social democratic" types at this stage. However, its record historically as the main openly bourgeois party in Sri Lanka has meant that it has been a chief vehicle of Sinhala chauvinism in the past and, under different circumstances in the future, may assume this role once again. One or other of the bourgeois parties may reflect more "realistically" the interests of the Sri Lankan capitalists and of imperialism at certain stages. Clearly, the Sri Lankan bourgeois and imperialism want the peace deal with the Tigers and the UNP to last, as this better represents their interests at this stage. That does not mean to say that the workers’ movement, and particularly those who claim to be Trotskyist, can give the slightest hint of support or "preference" for the UNP over the SLFP.
Moreover writing on 28 April 2004, Vasu admits that he and Bahu were too close to the UNP. "In this context the Left and Democratic political platform was isolated. The stand taken by our New Left Front against imperialist domination and the economic policies of the UNP, while being supportive of the cease-fire and the peace process of the UNP, was not attractive. At the same time, the NLF opposed the alliance led by Chandrika – an adherent of neo-liberal economic policy with a latent militaristic approach to the national question.
"The fact that the United Socialist Party surpassed the New Left Front may be due to the dissatisfaction among the Leftists about the stand of the NLF which they thought was too close to the UNP". Bahu, in particular, has a record of viewing things empirically, of taking isolated trends within parties as an indication of a finished process and, on this basis, advocating support, albeit "critically", for such parties.
In 1987, when the Indo-Lanka agreement was signed between Rajiv Gandhi and JR Jayawardena, the NSSP, under the leadership of both Bahu and Vasu, supported JR’s UNP government saying that it was the only alternative way of fighting against the JVP’s communal killings. Siri and his supporters within the NSSP and the CWI’s international leadership opposed this.