“A cops-and-robbers approach to history”- Review by Gananath Obeyesekere

Visakha Kumari Jayawardene. The Rise of the Labour Movement in
Ceylon. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1972. Pp. 382.

Review by
Gananath Obeyesekere
University of California, San Diego

“The naive-Marxist view of the proletariat infuses the book in another way. The proletarians are the good guys, the British and the conservative Ceylonese elite (the ruling class) the bad guys: a cops-and-robbers approach to history. This leads to a somewhat uncritical attitude toward sources: views of the “good” radicals are presented as if they were facts. Also, this attitude toward the proletariat leads the author to contradictory, almost ludicrous and morally dubious, situations. For example, she gives an excellent account of the riots between the Sinhalese and Muslims in 1915. She says that, in the villages, these riots had a communal and religious character, though rooted in the economic dominance of the Muslim merchants in rural Ceylon. In the city, however, the rioters “had hardly any religious motives”; the riots were economic, directed against unscrupulous merchants. It is hard for the author to concede that proletarians could be as bigoted and chauvinistic as other species of Homo sapiens.”

This is a historical study of the trade union movement in Ceylon from its beginnings in nationalism to its maturity and independence in the early 1930s, under the leadership of the great labor leader A. E. Goonesinghe. In the first period (1880-1915), the workers as a “class” hardly existed.In 1911 there were only 75,000 workers in Colombo, of whom 5,000 were public servants and 17,000 domestics, a group that has not been unionized to this day. During the early part of this period (until around 1900), there were no organizations of workers and methods of protest were few:spontaneous protest, petition writing, and provident funds (for clerical workers). But in the late nineteenth century, there was a nationalistic Sinhala-Buddhist revival movement, the more extreme section led by Anagarika Dharmapala. This Buddhist revival movement, the author states, produced the later labor leaders. Thus, right up to 1915 the early labor movement was a refraction of anticolonialism, under the guise of a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, and of other movements, like the temperance movement of the period.

The earliest labor leaders were ex-Christian burghers, educated in English, constituting the “radical wing” of the indigenous elite-P. M. Lisboa Pinto and A. E. Buultjens, who were supported by other “radicals,”particularly the Tamil leader Ponnambalam Arunachalam. A critical event of this early period was a printers’ strike of 1893, followed by the formation of the first union (of printers). It is interesting to note that the president of the union (Lisboa Pinto) was a Goan, seven of its 12 committee members were Dutch burghers, and English was used for conducting union business. This leadership may have been part of the anticolonial movement, as the author suggests, but it was certainly not drawn from the Sinhala-Buddhist revivalism of Anagarika Dharmapala. Perhaps many of the printers were educated burghers or Christian Sinhalese who could respond to this leadership.

In chapter 5 Dr. Jayawardene deals with the growth of militant labor,dramatized by the successful strike of carters in 1906. She says that the new militancy was due to the influence (on the radical leadership, presumably) of external events, like Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905 and her industrial prowess, which gave other Asian nations a sense of pride,the impact of the Russian revolution, and Indian nationalism. But perhaps the most important influence was that of Anagarika Dharmapala, the Buddhist nationalist, who took an active interest in the carters’ strike and whose Sinhala nationalism helped to politicize workers. In contrast to the printers, the carters were all Sinhala and mostly Buddhist. They could be influenced by Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, and it was during this strike that a new leadership emerged among the working classes-produced by the Buddhist revival movement. One of the leaders was John Kotalawala (hardly a “radical”), who was a disciple of Dharmapala. I was myself unaware of the profound influence of Dharmapala on the labor movement, and the author should be commended for documenting this in detail. The carters’ strike was followed by a strike of railway workers in 1912, which was also largely Sinhala, and influenced by Dharmapala’s militant nationalistic Buddhism (p. 154).

The second phase of the labor movement was from 1915 to 1933, when it emerged as a relatively autonomous political force under the leadership of Goonesinghe. By 1923 Goonesinghe was in effective control of Colombo workers and organized Ceylon’s first general strike, when 20,000 workers struck. He organized the Ceylon Labour Union in 1922 and the Ceylon Labour party and All-Ceylon Labour Congress in 1928. Certain external factors-like the brief emergence of a Labour government in England helped Goonesinghe to form Ceylon’s first modern trade unions. The author says that Goonesinghe’s party had a chance of “becoming a power in the legislature” (p. 280), but does not say why he failed so badly.The author deals at length with the impact of Goonesinghe on the working class and the larger political system. She shows the collapse of Goonesinghe’s leadership during the depression, when practically all the strikes he led failed. The book ends with this low point in trade unionism (around 1933), but leaves open the tantalizing question of the causes for his failure.

Though the book is good history, it is somewhat lacking in sociological insight.Jayawardene understands only imperfectly the society of the colonial era. Consider the terms she uses to describe the society of this period. In contrast to the working class, there was a middle class that was a product of a colonial economy. This large middle class was divided into (1) a Ceylonese middle class of landowners, Ayurvedic physicians, monks, teachers, etc., and (2) a “modern middle class” of educated persons manning the professions and in control of political power. The Ceylonese middle class is also referred to as a “politically active Sinhalese lower middle class” (p. 112).

Jayawardene does not deal with this “Ceylonese middle class”–a Sinhala-educated village intelligentsia-and she is unaware of their crucial role in politics in Ceylon. She is concerned mainly with the “modern middle class” (a Western-educated elite), constituted of conservatives (a small number), moderates (the majority), and radicals (also a small number). The radicals were dissatisfied with the slow pace of constitutional reform and agitated for drastic forms of political action. Their utilization of labor discontent was part of a larger nationalistic agitation (she rightly notes).The class and political terminology is misleading and militates against a true appreciation of Ceylonese society in colonial times. The author posits a line of radicalism that emerged from the “modern middle class”- Buultjens, Lisboa Pinto, Arunachalam, Dharmapala, and Goonesinghe. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

a) The “radicals” hardly constituted a group, category, or tradition in any sense. They were at best individuals expressing their dissatisfaction with the prevailing “conservatism.” All of them were educated either in England or in native schools based on the Western model. The author denies this and says that the radicals identified with mass aspirations (of peasants?) and got a nationalist-based education, howbeit “taught by foreign liberals,” in Theosophist schools. While this may be the case, these schools were modeled on the British public schools-all the way from cricket to the curriculum. It is likely that plenty of moderates and conservatives were also products of these schools.

The author in fact constantly points out the shifting nature of political allegiances and movements along the conservative-radical continuum.Today a radical, tomorrow a conservative (e.g., E. R. Tambimuttu, George E. de Silva, H. J. C. Pereira). Many of the radicals listed by the author later became prominent members of the UNP, the “conservative” political party.

b) The radicals of that period, as well as now for the most part, were, it seems to me, part of the elitist social establishment. They wrote and spoke English and were connected to the moderates and conservatives through a common life-style and a variety of social, kinship, and affinal connections, which acted as a brake against “radicalism” and involvement with the workers. They could also be easily pressured into defending their own class interests. The author does not notice the patronizing attitude of a radical like Lisboa Pinto toward the workers, as when he writes: “He [the worker]is called indolent, perverse, ignorant, dishonest. Perhaps he is; but he also knows no better. It is very often circumstances that make us what we are”(p. 88). The author herself recognizes the limitation of this label when she says later that the radicals were “the left wing of the Ceylonese middle class,” or that there was “no ideological basis behind the radicals” and they displayed at best “a certain concern for the needs of the peasantry and urban workers” (p. 256). These later assessments seem to me better informed and more reasonable.

c) The historical account of a line of radicalism is misleading. Radicals like the ex-Christian burgher Lisboa Pinto, the liberal Arunachalam, and the Indian Brahmin Natesa Avyar were as different from each other as they were from radicals like Dharmapala and Goonesinghe. Goonesinghe is the major figure of the period, but the author does not properly understand the roots of his radicalism. He was a disciple of Dharmapala, the truly charismatic leader Ceylon has produced in modern times. Dharmapala’s nationalism was entirely a Sinhala-Buddhist one, which appealed primarily to the alienated village intelligentsia (the “Ceylonese middle class”). He opposed the British as well as non-Sinhala peoples and non-Buddhists and was to a great extent responsible for the wide anti-Muslim feelings that triggered the riots of 1915. Neither Dharmapala nor his disciples were egalitarian; on the contrary, they were strong believers in status and hierarchy. The author, with her liberal, humanistic viewpoint, does not see that religion is nationalism for these people, so that she could speak of religion being “superseded by nationalism” after 1915 (p. 181).

Viewing it in this perspective, we can get a better grasp of Goonesinghe’s radicalism. He was a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist, a disciple of Dharmapala, a puritan, a teetotaler, a vitriolic polemicist modeling himself on his master. He could mobilize the workers with his nationalistic ideology and his organizational skills at a time when workers were predominantly Sinhala. The author sees him differently, as a “true” working class leader whose communal biases arose only during the bleak period of trade unionism during the depression. She attributes a similar chauvinism to working classes in general when in a state of demoralization. But Goonesinghe’s chauvinism existed all the time. One reason for his ultimate failure is precisely this. The Colombo working class expanded in the 1930s and became ethnically heterogeneous, and Goonesinghe’s Sinhala nationalism could not provide these heterogeneous elements with an overriding ideology that could unify them for effective trade union action. This was left to another set of radicals from the same elitist background: the Trotskyite and Communist leadership of the trade unions, which persists to this day.

Another weakness in the book is a naive-Marxist view of the proletariat.The proletariat is a monolithic entity-the working class. This view of the working class may have some validity in industrial societies, but it is quite inadequate for an understanding of the beginnings of unionization in Asian nations. We do not get an idea of the internal divisions within the proletariat-that is, in terms of caste or ethnic lines-for which there is much evidence in the book. For example, Goonesinghe raised the communal and religious (Sinhala-Buddhist) outcry in the depression period. How did the workers respond to this ? Were there cleavages in the working class on such lines It is indeed likely that these cleavages always existed, as they do even today.

The naive-Marxist view of the proletariat infuses the book in another way. The proletarians are the good guys, the British and the conservative Ceylonese elite (the ruling class) the bad guys: a cops-and-robbers approach to history. This leads to a somewhat uncritical attitude toward sources: views of the “good” radicals are presented as if they were facts. Also, this attitude toward the proletariat leads the author to contradictory, almost ludicrous and morally dubious, situations. For example, she gives an excellent account of the riots between the Sinhalese and Muslims in 1915. She says that, in the villages, these riots had a communal and religious character, though rooted in the economic dominance of the Muslim merchants in rural Ceylon. In the city, however, the rioters “had hardly any religious motives”; the riots were economic, directed against unscrupulous merchants. It is hard for the author to concede that proletarians could be as bigoted and chauvinistic as other species of Homo sapiens. Hence nice distinctions are maintained: “. . .25 Moors were killed during the riots and 189 were injured which indicates that the riots were not solely directed at killing Moors” (!) (p. 177). Or again: “The ‘mob’ in Colombo was not bent on attacking the Moors themselves, or pillaging their places of worship on religious grounds, but rather on plundering the shops of the Moors which represented the hardships caused by profiteering and unfair trade practices” (!) (p. 176). This kind of ideological naivet 6 is also paralleled by a somewhat unfair, pejorative assessment of “conservatives” like D. B. Jayatilleke, who led the staid and dull but politically productive negotiations for constitutional reform and independence.

This review was originally published in Economic Development and Cultural Change Vol. 24, No. 1 (Oct., 1975), pp. 254-259, a journal by University of Chicago Press.

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